FORT MYERS, Fla. — The worst-kept secret of Red Sox spring training finally spilled out of the ball bag Wednesday before the Sox played the Miami Marlins at JetBlue Park.
Jon Lester will be the Opening Day starter against the Yankees in New York Monday afternoon.
“That’s a surprise in camp — in Camp No Surprise,’’ said manager John Farrell.
Lester will become the first Red Sox pitcher to start three consecutive openers since Pedro Martinez started seven straight from 1998-2004. The only other lefties to start three straight openers for the Sox are Mel Parnell and Babe Ruth.
Getting Lester back on track has been one of the top goals of the spring of 2013. Still only 29 years old, the big southpaw is 85-48 (.639) over seven seasons, but he slumped badly beginning in the infamous September of 2011. In his last four games of ’11, Lester went 0-3 with an ERA of 8.24. He gave up 25 hits and 12 walks in 19⅔ innings. After manager Terry Francona was fired, Lester was fingered as one of the chicken-and-beer brigade and he seemed to carry psychological baggage into the 2012 season.
The disaster of 2012 touched everyone in a Sox uniform — no one more than Lester. The once-dominant lefty finished 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA, giving up 216 hits and 68 walks in 205⅓ innings. He lost some mileage on his fastball and had little confidence. Lester was one of many Sox veterans who seemed to hate playing for Bobby Valentine. Bobby V left him on the mound to take an 11-run beating against Farrell’s Blue Jays at Fenway Park in July.
From the third base dugout, Farrell — Lester’s former pitching coach with the Sox — could see that the hurler was not himself. The new Sox manager made Lester one of his missions this spring.
“Jon’s been in the discussion of a very select group of pitchers in the major leagues and he’s pitching like that again,’’ said Farrell. “He’s made the adjustments that we’ve targeted. It’s been positive, the focus and emphasis on the work that needed to be done. Jon’s gotten back to a delivery similar to what he had in the past. It’s what made him one of the best lefthanded pitchers in the game.’’
Lester had a dominant spring. In six outings, he pitched 24 innings, allowing two runs on eight hits and four walks with 20 strikeouts. Lester’s spring ERA is 0.75. In his final start Wednesday against the mighty Marlins, Lester gave up two hits (one a cheapie that should have been pocketed by Mike Napoli at first), walked none, and struck out four. He threw 50 pitches, 38 strikes. Any questions?
He seems re-dedicated to the craft. In Lester’s initial (picnic table) press conference, he admitted he’s been too demonstrative on the mound. He talked freely about getting wrapped up in bad calls from behind the plate. He pledged to work harder at controlling his frustration.
It seems to be working. Like the rest of us do, Lester knows he’s too good to be as bad as he was in 2012.
He says it’s all mechanical.
“It’s all about standing tall,’’ Lester said after Wednesday’s outing. “It sounds simple, but for whatever reason I morphed into it from 2011 to 2012. I was pitching like I was 5-10 instead of like I’m 6-4. You can see it. You look at it, side-by-side, even someone who doesn’t know anything about baseball [I think he was looking at me when he said this] can see it. I couldn’t dig out. I don’t know how it worked out in my head, but it wasn’t good. So this spring I overhauled everything and I’m back to being me.’’
He’s convincing. Thank Farrell. Thank new pitching coach Juan Nieves. Thank club video coordinator Billy Broadbent. Whatever Lester has done, it’s working.
“Good results always helps,’’ said Lester. “You see swings and misses, and you say, ‘Man, this is me.’ ”
Maybe pitching coaches really do matter. Maybe Curt Young, Bob McClure, and Randy Niemann couldn’t get through to Lester.
“Juan’s been leading us,’’ said Lester. “He just said, ‘This is the way we’re gonna go about it.’ The tempo and being relentless at the bottom of the zone. Up and in. Low and away. It frees up a lot of guys that think too much sometimes, like myself. Each bullpen, each start, I got better and better through the whole spring.’’
Farrell likes his rotation of Lester, Clay Buchholz, Ryan Dempster, Felix Doubront, and John Lackey.
“Number one, we’re healthy,’’ said the manager. “Number two, they’ve embraced some of the things we’ve offered, working quicker and individual adjustments. Our rotation is going to give us an element of consistency that has to be the cornerstone of our team.’’
He didn’t tell Lester he’d be pitching the opener until Wednesday morning.
“The hardest part of Opening Day is all the hoopla — all the stuff that goes on before the first pitch,’’ said Lester. “With Yankees-Red Sox, in New York, it’ll be even more. It’s an honor. It’s a privilege. Especially for this organization. I take it with great pride and hopefully I can get the team off to a good start.’’
A good start would be . . . a good start. It would be nice to get out of last place for a day.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.