DETROIT - Jon Lester will look to start the season with a clean slate when he makes the second consecutive Opening Day start for the Red Sox Thursday against the Tigers, the lone American League team he has never defeated.
When the 28-year-old lefthander opposes Justin Verlander, the reigning Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner, and the team favored to win the AL Central, Lester says he will not be encumbered by thoughts of his daunting task, even though he is 0-2 vs. the Tigers with a 5.89 ERA, his highest mark against any AL team.
“I’m really excited to get it going,’’ said Lester, who made 31 starts last season, going 15-9 with a 3.47 ERA.
“It’s been a long spring, it always is,’’ Lester said in the visitors’ dugout after Wednesday’s workout at Comerica Park. “The last couple of weeks always gets tedious and repetitive and it’s always nice to get to a different place and be in a nice big stadium like this.’’
While it motivated him during the offseason, Lester does not expect to carry with him baggage from last season’s 2-10 start or 7-20 September swoon, during which Lester lost his last three decisions.
Lester was the alpha and omega pitcher for the Sox last season. He took the mound Opening Day in Texas and absorbed a 9-5 beatdown vs. the Rangers, giving up five runs on six hits, including three home runs. He started Game 162 in Baltimore, a 4-3 loss that, coupled with Tampa Bay’s victory over the Yankees, ended the Red Sox season and invariably cost manager Terry Francona his job.
When new manager Bobby Valentine described his team as “a prideful group,’’ Lester was in complete agreement.
“If you don’t have pride, if you don’t have that ego, if you don’t have that competitiveness, then you shouldn’t be out on that field,’’ Lester said. “I think that’s what makes our group special.
“You can look every person in the eye and know that last year hurt ’em. Whether it was the end of the season or the beginning of the season, it was a tough thing, a tough thing to swallow.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of coming out and avenging the loss [to the Orioles] and showing people that’s never going to happen again, because we can’t say that. We may have a month where we go 7-20 again. We just picked the wrong time to do it. Tampa got hot. When it comes down to it, yeah, we all have pride and that edge to want to win.
“The biggest thing is that the guys who were here last year came down to the first day of spring training, whether it was Feb. 1 when nobody was there, or Feb. 23 when everybody showed up, we put 2011 behind us and were ready to move on to 2012.’’
Now it’s incumbent upon Lester to get the Sox started, against a formidable Tigers lineup. The meat of Detroit’s batting order was beefed up considerably with the acquisition of free agent first baseman Prince Fielder, which explained why Lester hoped this Opening Day assignment would go better than last year’s.
“The biggest thing is hopefully these guys aren’t as hot as [the Rangers] were at the beginning of the year,’’ said Lester. “It wasn’t just my start, it was the whole series, [the Rangers] were hitting the cover off the ball. We ran into a team that was on fire, offensively.
“That happens throughout the course of the year, whether it was Opening Day or the last start of the season; that can always happen. Obviously, the biggest thing is that it’s behind me, I’ve learned a lot from it, and I’ll take that on the mound [Thursday] and try to make adjustments.’’
Lester said it would be of paramount importance to prevent batters from reaching base, thereby minimizing Fielder’s potential damage.
“If you can limit the base runners in front of him - solo homer, hopefully - he isn’t going to beat you,’’ Lester said.
As for matching up against Verlander?
“It doesn’t add anything to it for me,’’ Lester said. “I just know going in that I’ve got to be better - I’ve got to execute pitches better, and I’ve got to do things better than he does in the game.
“Hopefully, our offense can get to him early and we’ll see what happens. I’ve got to worry about those guys in the batter’s box and not his game plan against us. The biggest thing it always comes back to is executing pitches.’’
Lester came out of spring training comfortable with the work he got in, keeping his pitches down and expanding his repertoire by “tripling up on changeups, 0-2 changeups,’’ he said.
Now, as he prepares to make his Opening Day start, Lester hopes it’ll have a cleansing effect on the team.
“Usually at the end of the season, I forget about everything and I move on and you go do your stuff with your family,’’ Lester said. “But I don’t know if it was all that other stuff that happened that made it linger, but it lingered. It even lingered for a while, but once Jan. 1 hit and I started throwing and really getting after it, I think that’s when it was finally OK to let go of it and move on.’’
So when he fires his first pitch of 2012, Lester will know it’s time to look forward to this season and not dwell on the past.
“It’s all over,’’ he said. “I’m ready to go. It’s a new season.’’