BOSTON -- There is one specific date in Jon Lester’s career that stands out more than the others.
It's not the day he started and won Game 4 of the 2007 World Series and it won't be Wednesday, when he starts Game 1 of the 2013 World Series for the Boston Red Sox. It’s not May 19, 2008, the day he tossed a no-hitter against the Kansas City Royals at Fenway Park. As Lester prepares to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the 109th World Series on Wednesday night at Fenway Park, it's July 23, 2007 he looks back to.
That was the first day he returned to a big league mound after his successful battle with cancer.
The start of his big league career was derailed in 2006 when he was diagnosed in August with anaplastic large cell lymphoma. After undergoing treatment, he was ready for spring training but knew it would be a while before he returned to the majors.
He did on a July night in Cleveland and posted a victory against the Indians. The left-hander worked six innings and allowed two runs on five hits as Boston finished with a 6-2 victory. In his mind, that was literally the first day of the rest of his pro career.
“Probably the most important date out of them all,” Lester said. “Obviously the World Series, and playoffs and no-hitters, opening days and all that stuff is great, but all those rank underneath July 23. Going through that whole [health] process, Feb. 1 and my first day back in the big leagues were my two dates that I set as goals in that whole deal. I wanted to be ready for spring training and whenever the Red Sox feel like I’m ready.
“I’m just glad they did it that year and didn’t make stay down in the minor leagues for the full year. But, yeah, July 23 ranks higher than all of them.”
He made 12 more starts that season and finished with a 4-0 record. When the Red Sox reached the ALCS that postseason, Lester faced the Indians twice but had to settle for a no-decision as Boston dropped both of his starts.
The Red Sox won that series and advanced to the World Series and quickly gained a 3-0 lead when then-manager Terry Francona handed the ball to Lester for the possible clincher in Game 4. Boston’s southpaw worked 5 2/3 scoreless innings against the Rockies and led the Red Sox to a victory and a World Series title.
Lester and his wife, Farrah, were recently reminiscing about the morning of Game 4 in 2007. Lester remembers they were at breakfast in Denver and talking about his opportunity to help the Red Sox win.
“I was shaking,” he said. “I couldn’t control anything because I was so nervous, so anxious to get to the field. But once I got to the field it was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to go pitch, go to work now.’ But leading up to that point I was thinking about the what-ifs and I hope I don’t let these guys down.
“We had all the momentum going for us and all I wanted to do was keep us in the ballgame. I didn’t want to lose that game. You give them that once chance to change the momentum it can be a long series. That was the most nervous point for me. I’m a rookie and these guys don’t know me from Adam, and I don’t want to ruin these guys’ lives. I don’t want to screw this up for Mikey Lowell, Josh Beckett, for David Ortiz, or for the guys who have never won one. You have all those things going through your mind.”
Once he arrived in the clubhouse at Coors Field, he was able to settle in and do his job.
When he wakes up Wednesday morning, he admitted he’ll have butterflies just like any other start, but he knows now how to control those emotions.
"Obviously there will still be nerves, there will still be all that to be expected," Lester said. "But I think I know who I am a little bit more as a pitcher and what to expect from myself and what to expect from the crowd and all the different things that go along with getting a start in the World Series. We talk about every start is a learning experience, and if I can go back to that one and draw something, that will hopefully help me tomorrow, then that would be great.
“You might throw the first one off the backstop, but after that you say, ‘OK, let’s settle back in.’ You just learn how to control those emotions as the years go on, and as the experience goes on you learn how to harness them in the right way.”
He's hoping to add a few more memorable dates to his baseball resume in the next couple of weeks.