JUPITER, Fla. — Jon Lester wants to be the ace of the Red Sox, the top dog, the leader of the staff.
Call it what you want, he says he will not run away from the challenge.
On top of trying to repair his pitching mechanics and trying to regain his form of 2010, when he went 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA, Lester wants to put aside the embarrassment and humiliation he felt last season, when he went 9-14 with a career-high ERA of 4.82.
“Absolutely,” he said about being the ace. “That’s what I pitch for. I come here every year and want to be the best pitcher I can be. It’s nothing I’m going to call myself, but if the other four guys want to call me that and want me to be that guy, I want it.”
Lester took his first step toward that Sunday when he pitched two scoreless, hitless innings with one strikeout (against Carlos Beltran) in a 5-3 Red Sox win over the Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium.
Lester threw 24 pitches (17 strikes), a tidy six in the second inning. He threw a 93-mile-per-hour fastball past Beltran for his K.
“I’ll never complain of a quick inning in spring training,” Lester said. “The quicker I get back to the dugout the better.”
Lester said he threw all fastballs except one changeup. He believes throwing a lot of fastballs will increase his arm strength and he’ll throw more offspeed pitches as time goes on.
“I was trying to get my feet under me; keeping the ball down in the zone,” he said. “Being two innings, when it works, it’s great to pound fastballs. That was our goal today . . . got some work in.”
After a tough July of last season, Lester said he felt he got back to his better habits in August and September and continued to work on things in the offseason.
Manager John Farrell talked about getting Lester back to throwing on a downward plane.
“The simplest way to describe it is my hand is on top of the ball rather than the wrist being underneath the ball and pushing the ball,” Lester said. “And that was something we fell into last year with a whole bunch of things we don’t have time to get into that created that pushing of the ball.
“When I can get my arm up and get my hand on top of the ball, that creates a downward plane. I can get the ball to the thigh and knee area with good angle and it has a little bit extra on it when it gets to home plate. That’s what we’re looking for.
“You’re going to have a misfire now and then. Sometimes you can go out there and be locked in with everything and throw your hat and glove out there and you have mechanics, location, and angle, and some games you have to fight pitch to pitch. In those 30 starts, you only have one or two when you throw your hat and glove, and the rest you’re grinding through.”
Lester said he’s tried to learn as much as he can from a bad season, but he doesn’t want any more education.
“I think any time you can learn a lot from things that don’t go your way,” he said. “I don’t like not having a good season. I don’t like going out there every five days and getting my ass kicked. I like to win. I don’t know if [a bad season] sets you up for a good season. I mean if it does, great. I don’t want to do it again. I think it humbles you.
“The big thing is the embarrassment of not being me and getting back to the stupid stuff that you forget about when you’re in the minor leagues.”
It’s all about repetition of his delivery.
Lester watched video of 2010 and compared it with last year and he saw the difference as clear as day. Sometimes one gets the feeling that Lester overthinks things and puts too much pressure on himself. Yet at 29 , he’s heading into his prime as a pitcher. This should be the best of times.
He remembers going out in 2010 and feeling he could win every start. That’s the feeling he’s trying to get back.
“It’s nice to have that calendar year where you can just turn the page onto a new season and everyone starts fresh again,” Lester said. “The last three months [of the season], I pounded away on myself to find out what was going on — trying different things in workouts, trying different things between starts. So once we got away, I took those first couple weeks off and it really helped mentally and physically to, you know, hit the reset button, blank page, the whole deal. Get back to being me.”
He said Farrell is a “good set of eyes” for him. His former pitching coach already has corrected a couple of flaws he noticed immediately from last season.
“It’s getting there,” Lester said. “It feels pretty good right now, for it being the first one. We’ve still got a long ways to go. There’s still some things that we need to improve on. We’re going to keep pounding away on it. Hopefully by the beginning of the season, it’s locked in.”
It has to be locked in. Lester has to be the ace.
Clay Buchholz said earlier in camp that he believes John Lackey will be the ace of the staff at some point this season. Yet Lester is clearly the most talented pitcher on the staff, and has to come close to 20 wins.
If Lester becomes the ace again, the Red Sox might be able to break away from mediocrity and be a contender. They haven’t had that leader of the staff for a while, and Lester wants the job. He wants it badly.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.