Sunday, October 12, 2008

No more uncertainty about Lester

They're still not on the same page.

Someone asked Red Sox manager Terry Francona at a press conference on Saturday when it was that he felt able to give left-hander Jon Lester the go-ahead to pitch normally and not hold him back the way he'd done early in his return from cancer treatments.

"We did a lot of homework on what he was going through and what to expect physically or what was fair to expect or how we should go about this -- and we really did make him go slow," Francona said. "I made a call to his folks in spring training, and I told them, 'We're really going to piss off your son,' and they laughed. They said, 'You know, we understand why.' We were going to go slow with him, and we did, and it was very frustrating to him. ...

"It's come back. It's come back. He's farther away from being sick; he's bigger and stronger. If you look at video of him, like, from the back, he doesn't even look like the same kid anymore."

Lester, though, reiterated that he felt ready to go, with no restrictions, when spring training began. He might have started the season with just two wins in his first 10 starts and a 3.95 ERA to go along with a 29-to-33 walk-to-strikeout ratio, but that was more attributable to his inexperience than any lingering weakness from his cancer treatments.

"I had a normal off-season, could do the normal routine and come in full-strength and be able to do the same workload as everybody else," he said. "I don't think there were really any issues this year."

Whichever story you believe, it's easy to agree on one thing: There are no issues anymore. In fact, given the sudden shakiness of Josh Beckett and the ongoing maddeningness -- if, you know, that's a word -- of Daisuke Matsuzaka, Lester is the closest thing the Red Sox have to a sure thing right now.

He's thrown 14 straight innings without allowing an earned run in his two playoff starts. He's 6-1 with a 1.51 ERA since Sept. 1. He's 13-1 with a 2.22 ERA at Fenway Park since the regular season began. With a 96-mile-an-hour fastball and a nasty curveball, he's almost untouchable at this point.

And while Lester did his best to duck the "ace" tag on Sunday -- "I just try to go pitch my game," he told assembled reporters. "You guys can put the labels on it as what you want." -- no one was fooled.

"He's the guy everyone wants to give the ball to right now," reliever Manny Delcarmen said.

And if you treat the American League Championship Series as a brand new best-of-five series, Lester is set to pitch Games 1 and 5 with a chance to pitch the Red Sox into the World Series.

"You can't really describe the atmosphere of the ballpark when you go play and every pitch matters," he said. "Every pitch, every at-bat, every out -- it matters so much more trying to get to that next stage."

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