Starting pitchers are slowly being marginalized. Go five innings and the manager shakes your hand for a job well done. The idea of facing the lineup for a third time is treated like scaling Mount Everest.
That is if you even get five innings. Plenty of teams now use openers, then let the erstwhile starter slide into the game for maybe 15 batters.
Can you imagine Terry Francona or John Farrell telling Jon Lester that was the plan? They’d have needed security.
Lester, who announced his retirement Wednesday, started 241 games for the Red Sox from 2006-14 and went at least six innings 178 times. Getting him to give the ball up was a wrestling match.
Lester will be remembered for winning three World Series, the first two with the Red Sox before he joined the Cubs and led them to the historic 2016 championship.
What I will remember is the feeling in the clubhouse on the days that he pitched. Every Sox player knew Lester was going to give them everything he had whether it was hot, cold, or 50,000 rabid Yankees fans were screaming for his head.
“He was our horse,” Jake Peavy said when recalling the 2013 title team. “The day Lester pitched was a day we were going to win.”
That wasn’t always the case, of course. But the Sox were 143-98 in the regular-season games he started and 7-4 in 11 postseason starts.
Lester had a 1.97 earned run average in those postseason games. He started five games in the 2013 playoffs, going 4-1 with a 1.56 earned run average over 34⅔ innings.
That’s carrying a team, and it’s something baseball needs to recapture.
Theo Epstein, who is working with MLB on ways to improve the game, has said one of his priorities is reclaiming the importance of starters. It’s a worthy goal.
Lester is surely an inspiration. Epstein was there when Lester fired 5⅔ shutout innings against the Rockies to clinch the 2007 World Series.
Lester no-hit the Kansas City Royals at Fenway Park seven months later. The Sox haven’t had another no-hitter since.
The lefthander fashioned a career that could lead to the Hall of Fame, and his case is largely built on durability.
Wednesday’s announcement should have been made at Fenway Park. That’s what Lester once wanted. His intention was to sign a long-term contract with the Red Sox after the ‘13 season, to avoid free agency and secure his future.
The idea of being a career-long Red Sox player, like close friend Dustin Pedroia, appealed to Lester.
The Sox tried to take advantage of Lester’s loyalty by making him a below-market offer. Lester was open to a discount, but the Sox badly handled the situation, and rancor replaced loyalty.
The 2014 team collapsed, and Lester was traded to Oakland in July for Yoenis Cespedes, who wanted nothing to do with Boston. The Sox tried to correct their mistake and sign Lester back after the season, but Epstein and the Cubs outbid them.
Lester had a 3.643 ERA in nine years for the Sox. He had a 3.645 ERA in six seasons for the Cubs. What a mistake the Sox made.
“We blew it,” principal owner John Henry acknowledged a few years later.
Mismanaging Lester led to consecutive last-place finishes for the Sox. Lester finished his career having played for five teams.
It proved to be for the best, at least for him. In Chicago, Lester seemed to find the joy that often escaped him in the tumult of Boston. He became a team leader with the Cubs, the best free agent signing in team history.
Cubs fans love Lester the way Red Sox fans love David Ortiz. He was the ace of their 2016 team that finally delivered a World Series title. He ended his career there playing for David Ross, his former Sox teammate and a good friend.
He even became a half-decent hitter in the National League.
Lester told a Chicago radio station Wednesday that he might visit the Cubs in spring training but was otherwise open to see what family life will be like without 162 games on the schedule.
He’s earned every bit of that.