NEW YORK — Jackie Bradley Jr. may steal the show for now, but over the course of 162 games, which player’s performance is more important to the success of 2013 Red Sox than Jon Lester?
The answer: no one’s.
Lester will attempt to put aside his horrible 2012 as he goes head-to-head with CC Sabathia at Yankee Stadium Monday afternoon to kick off the Red Sox’ 2013 campaign. If Lester continues his spring training rebirth, it should be an excellent duel of two of the top lefthanders in the game.
Lester, who won 19 games in 2010 and 15 in 2011, lost his mechanics during the September collapse of 2011 when he went 1-3 in six starts with a 5.40 ERA when the team needed him most, and he was linked to the “chicken and beer” mentality of that clubhouse.
He spent most of the first half of last season (9-14, 4.82) trying to figure out what went wrong, first working with Bob McClure and then finally clicking with Randy Niemann, who was given the pitching coach job after McClure was fired.
It is vital that Lester be able to match up with the Sabathias, Verlanders, Felix Hernandezes, Jered Weavers, etc. and give the Red Sox a chance to win those tough games during the season. There were times last season he didn’t have a shot. There were times when one questioned whether Lester really was a No. 1 pitcher. He had fallen that far.
Say this about Lester, he wants to be a No. 1. He takes being the Opening Day starter as the ultimate honor and compliment. He has done nothing but work exhaustively toward trying to turn his career around. Still only 29 years old, the Sox did not give up on that hope even while being tempted by various trade proposals, including one in which the Royals would have traded outfield prospect Wil Myers for Lester.
This will be Lester’s third Opening Day start, but this is a big one.
He spoke Sunday about getting the team off to a good start and setting a good tone for the season. He believes that. He wants to do that.
The Yankees lineup he’ll face is a shadow of itself, so he has a chance to really dominate.
There’s no Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, or Derek Jeter to worry about. In their place will be Kevin Youkilis, Eduardo Nunez, Vernon Wells, and either Lyle Overbay or Jayson Nix, but the pressure of having to pitch against the once-prominent Yankees lineup no longer exists.
“They still have the ability of putting quality at-bats together,” Lester said. “Anybody who fills in is going to be good. It’s no walk in the park by any means.”
Lester said that while he knows he’s not going up against the opposing pitcher directly, he knows “I have to be extra good” because of who he’s facing in Sabathia. Lester said, “I love it,” when asked about going up against the best pitchers in the game every fifth day.
Lester said he doesn’t even think of the personal ramifications of outdueling the Sabathias and Verlanders with the massive contracts pitchers are getting now. Verlander just agreed to a seven-year extension at $200 million (if the option is picked up at $20 million in 2019).
Lester is being paid $11.625 million this season. There’s a team option for 2014 at $13 million, but if he finishes first or second in Cy Young Award voting he has the right to void the option.
If Lester hadn’t had the poor 2012, he might be up for an extension. But the Sox now want to see how Lester does this season before they commit so many dollars to him. The team regretted jumping the gun on Josh Beckett’s four-year extension, and doesn’t want to make that mistake again.
“I’m happy for [Verlander] and baseball,” Lester said. “I have to pitch a lot better than last year to think about that.”
In a perfect scenario, the Sox would love to be able to think along those lines. They would love to hold Lester up there with Sabathia, Verlander, and King Felix. And there are people who run this organization who believe he’s every bit as good as Hernandez when he’s right.
All pitchers go through slumps, but Lester needs to be over with his.
Sometimes pitchers lose their way and their mechanics simply leave them for no apparent reason. With Lester, all of the things that made him an excellent young pitcher left him. He said his struggles were as simple as not “standing tall” on the mound so that his pitches traveled on a downward plane. When he stands tall his fastball is crisper, his slider has swing-and-miss movement.
When Lester loses those mechanics, he’s very hittable, his cutter doesn’t quite get finished off like it should, and it allows hitters to get a good look.
Lester talked about “a clean slate” and “starting at zero.” He talked about buying into what pitching coach Juan Nieves has preached all camp — speeding up his tempo, so he doesn’t overthink and obsess over every pitch. He’s tried to emphasize “pounding the lower half of the strike zone” and keeping the ball down in general. Those seem like the most basic things. So how does a pitcher with Lester’s ability get so off track?
It could be the five pitching coaches in four years. It could be the environment he pitched in last season. It could be all of those outside forces. But in the end, it comes down to him. He’s been a professional for a long time, who still owns a .639 winning percentage (85-48, 3.76 ERA). If there’s anyone to blame, Lester needs to look in the mirror and blame himself.
And he does.
The one thing we’ve seen from Lester in spring training is more accountability.
He finally understands how important he is to the success of this franchise. The No. 1 guy takes the pressure off everybody else in the rotation. He sets the tone. A successful No. 1 creates a healthy competition among the other spots in the rotation.
A strong Lester should make Clay Buchholz think — “I’m gonna go out there and match him. I’m gonna be even better.” That’s what a No. 1 does. That’s what Sabathia does with Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova. That’s what Verlander does with Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez, and Max Scherzer.
Lester now has the chance to be that guy.
And for a team that won 69 games last year, the opportunity is there for the taking. Lester wants to be great. Whether having manager John Farrell and Nieves there to reinforce that ability is what it takes, it’s right in front of him.
The excitement of Jackie Bradley aside, a great year by Lester is what’s needed for the 2013 Sox to be in the hunt.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.