Jon Lester had the most losses on a last-place team in 2012. The lefthander would take the mound every five days for a rudderless team with little hope and do the best he could to leave with his dignity intact.
After knowing only success in his major league career, failure hit Lester like a line drive in the ribs. Some athletes have the ability to take each day as it comes, but the losing clearly wore on him.
“I think when you have a year like that, you have to sit and evaluate and figure out what went wrong. And obviously there was a lot of wrong,” Lester said. “Once that happens then you have to put it behind you.”
A year removed from that painful introspection, Lester will walk out to the mound at Fenway Park on Saturday night to face the Detroit Tigers in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.
He is again the ace of the team as the Red Sox seek their third American League pennant in the last 10 seasons.
Asked if he could sum up this unexpected journey, Lester used one word usually not in his baseball vocabulary: fun.
“I’ve had more fun this year than I ever had in the big league level,” he said. “Obviously you walk in that first day and like you said, there’s a lot of questions. Are we going to be good again? Am I going to be good again? But as soon as that first day hits you’ve got to put it all behind you and go to work.”
Lester noticed the difference from the first workout in spring training. The Red Sox had built a roster with players who shared his work ethic but also had the personalities that made him want to hang around the clubhouse again.
Manager John Farrell often refers to Lester as a concrete thinker, a person who sees the game in black and white. But starting this year, Lester let the colors seep in. His no-nonsense personality softened.
In May, when the Red Sox started growing beards, Lester ran a hand over his smooth chin and suggested the fad would pass. Now he’s happily bearded.
“It’s just been a fun ride to this point,” he said, using that word again.
Lester was 15-8 with a 3.75 earned run average in the regular season. He followed that up with a strong start against Tampa Bay in Game 1 of the Division Series, allowing two earned runs over 7⅓ innings.
After a midseason slump, Lester was 7-2 with a 2.57 ERA in his final 13 starts. The Tigers have former Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander on their staff along with Max Scherzer, the prohibitive favorite to win this season. But Lester has a 2.54 ERA in nine postseason appearances, nearly a full run lower than Verlander’s 3.48 in 14 games.
“This is still Jon Lester, one of the best lefties in the game,” teammate Ryan Dempster said. “He can be as good as anybody.”
Lester proved that on Sept. 3 at Fenway Park when he beat the Tigers and Scherzer, 2-1. Lester allowed one run over seven innings and struck out nine. Scherzer went seven innings, gave up two runs, and struck out eight.
It was the kind of game the Sox believe can serve as a blueprint, even with Lester facing former minor league teammate Anibal Sanchez on Saturday.
The Sox took two of three from Detroit in that series.
“It was a lot of things. It was a big series for us, keeping the momentum going for us,” Lester said. “It just had that feel of, ‘Hey, we’ve got a chance to play these guys in another month and let’s set the tone now.’ We were able to do that, I think, in that series and hopefully we can carry that over now.”
Lester faced the Tigers twice this season, also beating them at Comerica Park on June 21 despite giving up five runs.
Tigers star Miguel Cabrera is 10 of 19 in his career against Lester with two doubles and a home run. Former Red Sox teammate Victor Martinez is 6 of 14.
“Obviously a very tough lineup,” Lester said. “I think that’s what makes them very similar to our offense . . . You know you’re not going to have at-bats that they just give away.
“You have to be on top of your game from pitch one to however long you’re in the game for and try to execute down in the zone. Keep them in the ballpark, that’s a big key. If they are able to square some pitches up and hit some home runs, hopefully you’ve kept guys off the base paths so it’s just solo shots.”
The Red Sox have reams of scouting reports on Detroit but Lester will leave the job of distilling that down to others. Pitching coach Juan Nieves and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia will prepare the game plan. That concrete thinking Farrell speaks of demands only solutions.
“I’ll go back and I’ll watch the two games that I threw against them this year and try to get some information from that,” Lester said. “But I don’t like to overload myself with too much information . . . I’ll look at the usual stuff that I’ve looked at all year and then go from there.”