Lester determined for rebound season
After going 9-14 last year, left-hander pitching with chip on his shoulder
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- For a span of four seasons, Jon Lester displayed machine-like consistency. You could count on him for 15-19 wins, close to 200 strikeouts and 200 innings, and the knowledge he would keep the Red Sox in just about every game he pitched.
But the narrative has changed this spring. For the first time, Lester comes to camp trying to avenge a subpar individual season, not to mention a last-place finish by his team.
Chip on his shoulder? Sure.
"Obviously there's that desire of not wanting to fail anymore," Lester said. "I didn't really like what happened last year, as far as me and the way I pitched. That's solely on me -- that's not on anyone else, that's not on the revolving door of pitching coaches, that's not on our manager, that's not on anybody but myself. Like you said, there's a little bit of a chip there. I want to prove that last year was a fluke and it's not going to happen again."
So Lester went home for the winter and just erased baseball from his mind for about a month. The southpaw said he didn't even watch the postseason.
"That first month I tried to get as far away as I could, spend some time with my family and just unwind and release as best I could," Lester said. "Obviously there were some days in there you couldn't help but think about it and reflect on the season, but like I said, I tried to drown out the negative -- there was a lot of it. You try to filter through that and get to some positives. I think by the end of the offseason, I finally got there and am feeling good about where I'm at."
In 2012, Lester was 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA. While Lester has obviously had adversity with his health -- he overcame cancer in 2006 -- last season was the first time he struggled mightily as a pitcher.
"It's easy to be friends, it's easy to smile, it's easy to have a good time playing baseball when you're winning," Lester said. "That's easy. Anybody can do that. It's when you have seasons like last year, not only personally, but as a team, that makes it tough.
"There's plenty of days you don't want to get up and drive to the ballpark, but like I said, you learn a lot about your teammates and their desire and their fight and their competitiveness. Regardless of record, regardless of ERA and all that stuff, just go out and take the ball and show your teammates that you're not giving up, regardless of where you are in the game, regardless of where you are in the season. You've just got to take the ball, and you can't give up on those guys."
In other words, Lester is turning into a leader, even if he is uneasy about calling himself one.
"I don't worry about leaders and all of that. I try to do my job the best I can," Lester said. "I try to, especially with some of these young guys that are out there, try to set a good example on the field as far as doing the [pitchers' fielding practice] right, taking the bullpen serious -- and doing the little things that, as veterans, I feel that we should do.
"The leader stuff takes care of itself. People kind of name you that. You don't name yourself that. Like I said, it sounds cliched, it sounds stupid, but I just really try to focus on doing that, every day, the best I can. If one of my peers considers me a leader, that's awesome. Like I said, I'm just trying to right now get the ship right and start pitching well."
Perhaps the most comforting part of this spring for Lester is the return of John Farrell, his former pitching coach who is now his manager.
Farrell has always been one of Lester's biggest fans, so much so that he begged former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein not to package the lefty for Johan Santana five years ago. As Lester turned in an impressive side session during Wednesday's workout, Farrell watched intently with new pitching coach Juan Nieves.
"He's a vital member of our team and certainly our rotation," Farrell said. "Having Jon pitch to his capabilities and his talent, there's a number of years that speak to that. We've talked to you all the last couple of days about the adjustments that he's going through, and today was a good day with that.
"He had a very strong bullpen [session] and is doing some of the things within his delivery that are consistent with what he was a couple years ago. More importantly, he's locating the ball down in the strike zone. Again, it was the first bullpen [session], but a good one for him."
A draft pick of the Red Sox out of high school way back in 2002, Lester doesn't know what it's like to pitch for another team or in another city.
While Lester acknowledges he doesn't have the most bubbly personality you'll see, he made it clear he doesn't want to pitch anywhere else.
"I love baseball. I love Boston," Lester said. "People don't see me other than the fifth day. When I'm out there, I'm not out there to kid around. I'm not out there to joke around with hitters. At the same time, I'm having fun. It may not look like it. I may be cussing up a storm and yelling at somebody, but I'm having fun. I love to pitch. I love everything that is pitching, everything there is to baseball.
"I don't want to also come across as lackadaisical and aloof and not really caring about working hard. I take everything I do very seriously. I want my workouts to be the way they should be, I want my bullpen to go the way it should be, I want my game to go the way it should be. If it doesn't, I'm going to be [mad]. That's just who I am. At the same time, yeah, I can improve on those in-between days where you don't take it as serious. But I'd rather be on the serious side and work my way down than be the goofball and work my way up."
And yes, he did hear the rumors that surfaced during the winter that the Red Sox had at least had preliminary talks with the Royals about a trade for top prospect Wil Myers, who was subsequently traded to the Rays.
"I've been here since '02," said Lester. "It's kind of home, and I love it. You understand the circumstances and the business side of it, but it's always tough -- especially during the season when you start hearing that stuff. This offseason, I didn't hear about it until it was basically almost over.
"When I did [hear about it], [Royals manager] Ned Yost is one of my good friends. He's got some hunting land close to where I'm at. I actually rode over there one day and just talking to him, it came up. It is what it is. It's business. I understand. The Red Sox are trying to put the best team on the field, and if that involves me going somewhere else, there will be no hard feelings. I'll go play baseball and try to do my job there. But like I said, it is tough at first [to hear that]."
But Lester is still around, and the Red Sox probably can't make the postseason unless he rediscovers his ace form. If that sounds like pressure, Lester relishes it.
"I love it. Bring it on," Lester said. "What you guys expect of me is nothing next to what I expect of myself. I expect a lot. That's why, as far as me being serious, that's why I am the way I am. I try to live up to my own expectations before anybody else's. Obviously that's never going to happen. I take my job seriously, and I want to reach those.
"Just because I don't doesn't mean it's a failed season. Every year, my expectations have been higher of myself than what I have done, but that doesn't mean it's a failed season. There are things involved in that season that are good and some that are bad. You try to take every offseason and learn from those. Throw out the negatives and move on with the positives, and hopefully you just keep building off those and your expectations get higher and higher from there."