BOSTON — Jon Lester pitched in several big playoff games early in his career.
After being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the end of his rookie season in Sept. 2006, the southpaw capped a tremendous recovery approximately 13 months later as the winning pitcher in deciding-Game 4 of the 2007 World Series in St. Louis.
From 2007-09, Lester appeared in eight postseason games (6 starts), posting a 2.57 ERA and even out-dueling current teammate John Lackey, then with the Angels, in an intense 2008 American League Division Series Game 1.
But since ‘09, Lester and the Red Sox haven’t been to the playoffs.
He has gone through some incredible highs (a 3.25 ERA in 2010 and pitching the last three Opening Days) and some incredible lows (being a member of the fried chicken-and-beer clubhouse collapse of 2011 and posting a career-worst 4.82 ERA in 2012).
But Lester finally is back on track and so are the Red Sox. They will look to earn their first playoff win since 2008 when they open the postseason Friday evening at Fenway Park.
He endured a difficult stretch in the middle of this summer which included a 7.62 ERA in five starts in June. But heading into yesterday’s game, Lester had a 2.67 ERA in his 15 starts since the beginning of July.
The southpaw likely will start Game 1 of the ALDS, and right now he appears more relaxed, content and confident than he has been in a long time.
“When you struggle as a group or struggle individually, it’s hard to have fun,” Lester said. “Especially with all kind of the turmoil and distractions and nonsense that was going on last year, it’s hard to show up to the field and enjoy it.
“So I think it’s something we all put behind us at the end of last year and moved on to this year and came in with a new mindset — and I think you’re starting to see where that mindset is taking us.”
A HAPPIER LESTER
The day after his impressive Sept. 14 victory against the Yankees, Lester was in the clubhouse playing the air guitar while chatting with catcher David Ross. It was an incredible variation from the Lester we’ve seen in recent years, one who looks downright miserable.
“I’ve been here since 2006 and never experienced anything like this (clubhouse),” Lester said. “So that kind of tells you how unique this is. To be able to get 25 guys’ personalities to mesh and click and actually enjoy being around each other, for eight months, it’s tough to do. You can always as a front office try to plan for that, but sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
“So I feel like this year, for whatever reason, the personalities in this clubhouse click and like I said, we enjoy being around each other in the clubhouse, on the field and off the field,” Lester added. “We do things together — families and all that.”
Lester — who lives with his wife Farrah and son Hudson in Newton — said he loves Boston and enjoys pitching here. That’s something many questioned when he often moped around and looked so frustrated last year.
“We live outside the city so it takes us a little bit to get in here, but I just kind of enjoy the whole city in general, especially during the summer time — seeing all the people walking around and kind of the hustle and bustle of the city,” Lester said.
Not everything has been picture-perfect this year.
During mid-summer, the lefty appeared mentally worn down and his own worst enemy. He frequently was visibly upset with umpires when they didn’t give him the call on close pitches. He hasn’t always shown great body language on the mound (a problem he had last year) and at times he struggled with command, including walking seven batters June 11 at Tampa Bay.
Red Sox manager John Farrell gave Lester a nine-day rest between his last start before the All-Star Game and his first start after the break. That helped.
“Command overall has just been better,” Lester said. “Nothing’s changed. Nothing’s gotten better. My stuff’s still the same. For whatever reason, maybe after the All-Star Break I just used it as a break and physically felt better and mentally felt in a better place.
“Just started getting more consistent within the strike zone and with executing my pitches. You get on that roll, you start feeling confident about yourself and confident in the pitches you’re throwing and it makes things a little easier.”
Despite being an eight-year veteran, he seemed to mature this year.
“The way he’s kind of grown as a pitcher mentally and physically, it’s fun to see from my end of it,” Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “I think he’s the same guy, but he’s starting to make some changes, which you have to do because this league adjusts to you. You have to adjust to it. That is what he’s been able to do, clearly on the fly.
“He realizing that they’re making adjustments so there’s been some time we’ve gone away from everything we’ve ever done against a team and it’s worked and that’s something different than he used to.”
His velocity still remains strong. His fastball has averaged 92.8 mph this season, according to fangraphs.com. He also continues to throw his fastball, cutter, change-up and curveball around the same percentage of the time he always has. His change-up has been very effective recently and his cutter has improved.
And he reached the 200-inning plateau for the fifth time in six years.
Lester, however, isn’t big on goals.
“You can’t do that,” Lester said. “For me, the only individual thing that I say is 200 innings. That means I’m doing my job for these guys. I’m out there every day and I’m pitching and I’m throwing the innings that I need to throw — that I’m responsible for throwing. And that’s not letting these guys down. And the rest of the stuff — hopefully, at the end of the year you look at your baseball card and you go, ‘OK, the rest of the stuff fell into place.’”
LONG TIME WAITING
His last playoff appearance, Oct. 9, 2009, Lester opposed Lackey — then with the Angels — in Game 1 of the American League Division Series. He lost 5-0.
A year before that, Oct. 1, 2008, Lester and Lackey went pitch-for-pitch in Game 1 of the ALDS with Lester throwing a 7.0-inning gem, allowing just an unearned run and striking out seven. Lester and the Red Sox prevailed 4-1. Boston led by just one run entering the ninth.
“That’s a long time ago,” Lester said of the matchup with Lackey, now a good friend. “I think for me it was just more the excitement of getting the opportunity to pitch Game 1 more so than worrying about who I was pitching against. Just try not to screw it up and get us off to a good start.
“That’s a long time ago to remember feelings and emotions,” Lester added.
Lester certainly will remember those emotions Friday when he feels them again for the first time in four years.
Follow Christopher Smith on Twitter @SmittyOnMLB