FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Red Sox have treated Jon Lester like a classic sports car this spring training. They’ve kept him safely in the Fenway South garage and warmed up the engine in ideal settings like batting practice and simulated games, but had been reluctant to go for a real-world ride.
Lester had his first test drive of the spring Monday at JetBlue Park, and he looked like he was already at full speed.
In his first start of spring training, Lester didn’t look like he was in midseason form. He looked like he was in postseason form, the form we last saw him in when he shut down the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the World Series to cap a postseason tour de force (4-1 with a 1.56 earned run average).
The Sox ace picked up right where he left off during his October magnum opus, carving his way through a Tampa Bay Rays lineup that featured starters Evan Longoria, Yunel Escobar, and Wil Myers. Lester threw three scoreless innings, allowing only a broken-bat single to Myers in the first. The sturdy lefty walked one and struck out four, all coming in the final six batters he faced. Lester was just clearing his throat when he was done after 43 pitches (31 strikes), setting the stage for a 6-2 Red Sox win.
Lester took the mound in a game, albeit an exhibition one, for the first time in 133 days. The Sox, erring on the side of caution, wanted to ease him into spring training after he threw a career-high 213⅓ innings last year and then another 34⅔ in the postseason. Only Adam Wainwright (276⅔) and Clayton Kershaw (259) threw more combined innings last year than Lester. Lester’s 4,083 pitches thrown last season between the regular season and postseason were the most in baseball.
It has been easy does it for both Lester and John Lackey, who will make his first spring training start Tuesday against the Miami Marlins.
The kid glove treatment the Sox have given Lester this spring illustrates the contract contradiction the team faces with him. He is a desirable pitcher because he is a metronome on the mound, wind him up and watch him throw 200 innings, which he has done five of the last six years. But that same reliability makes him a potential liability on a long-term deal. At some point that workload has to take a toll on Lester. The question is when?
It’s not an easy decision for the Sox to make, but on days like Monday it’s hard to imagine the Red Sox rotation without the 30-year-old Lester fronting it, especially if he’s willing to take a hometown discount to keep a Red Sox jersey on his back beyond 2014.
You get the sense that Lester is not a huge fan of the precautionary path the Sox have him on this spring. After throwing a simulated game to minor leaguers March 5, he said he didn’t like being “put in a bubble.”
When he was asked Monday if his dominating performance, in which he threw an array of secondary pitches from curveballs to changeups to back-door cutters that are not usually seen in a first start, was validation of how the Sox have handled him, he demurred.
But he did admit that he took a more advanced approach against the Rays because he already had fine-tuned his fastball in controlled settings before the Sox took the spring training wheels off.
“I think having a start this late you’re able to do that,” said Lester. “My BP, my sim game, my minor league game was pretty much all fastballs. That’s kind of what I try to do early on. This one is so far more advanced than my normal first game I’m in a better position. We’re able to do that now.”
Still, Lester quipped he had to reintroduce himself to manager John Farrell because the Sox had played 11 spring contests without Lester pitching.
“This is a different approach that we’ve taken,” said Farrell. “But it’s also the first time in a number of years that guys have added that full month of pitching. We just felt it was the prudent thing to do in gradually bringing them along. They’re understanding of it. As long as they’re aware, and they accept it then the work is going to be quality.”
It was quality work from Lester. All four batters he fanned went down looking.
“All of them were perfect pitches. Even if they would have swung at them I don’t think they could have done a lot with them,” said the Sox’ A.J. Pierzynski, who caught Lester in a game for the first time. “A couple of them were down and away, perfect, painted. One of them was a cutter in. All you were going to do was break your bat on it.”
We can argue whether Lester is an absolute ace like Kershaw, Justin Verlander, or Felix Hernandez. He’s probably not. Or we can debate his salary ceiling.
But a pitcher who chews up bats, innings, and October lineups is a good investment.
With winter still flashing its frosty fangs across New England, baseball might seem far off, but the season-opener is 20 days away.
Starting Lester Monday put him on track to be on the mound on Opening Day in Baltimore on March 31.
Monday felt like real baseball for a few innings, still not worthy of charging premium prices for imitation games (I’m looking at you Marlins).
The Sox were wearing their home whites. They had a representative lineup that featured Grady Sizemore in the leadoff spot in center field and Shane Victorino making his spring debut, batting sixth. David Ortiz blasted a home run into the right field stands and flipped his bat like a juggling pin.
If this was a dress rehearsal, Lester looked every part of a leading man on the mound.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @cgasper.