Jon Lester eyes excellence

DETROIT -- We have watched him recover from cancer and bathe in champagne after pitching a World Series-clinching game. We have seen him toss a no-hitter, strike out 200 hitters twice, fall one game short of a 20-win season. We have seen him make 30 starts a season four years in a row, win 15 or more games in each of those seasons. We have linked his name to the great Sox left-handers of the past, Lefty Grove and Mel Parnell and Bruce Hurst and Bill Lee, and recognized his rightful place among their company.

We have expected so much, and seen him stand and deliver so often, though at times he has left us wanting more, because that is our nature, to always want more.

He is already beginning his second decade in the organization, having been drafted out of high school in 2002, and yet he just turned 28 years old in January. On Thursday, he makes his second consecutive Opening Day start for the Red Sox, a tangible recognition of the esteem with which he is regarded in his own clubhouse.

All of that, and Jon Lester is beginning only his fifth full season in a Red Sox uniform. Should it surprise anyone that to him it feels longer?

"I think when you play more than five years in Boston, and I'm right at that line, it's almost double," he said here Wednesday. "I think the same for New York, probably Philly, the higher pressure markets where you're constantly, whether it's good or bad, being scrutinized and constantly you're the target."

That bull's-eye comes not only from the outside, but from his peers in other places. "I think it physically and mentally wears on you," he said. "When the Kansas City Royals are losing 100 games a year and we play them in August, that's their World Series. You know we're getting their best every night. We were getting Tampa's best when they were losing 100 games. You get the best of everybody every night. I don't think that can be said about a lot of teams."

By his own demanding standards, Lester fell short last season. He went on the disabled list and was unable to reach his goal of 200 innings. He walked too many batters, fought through some mechanical issues, and worst of all could not stop the Boston free-fall in September. Through it all, he still won 15 games, which means, as the Sox media guide notes, he joins CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay as the only pitchers to win 15 or more while whiffing 150 or more in each of the past four seasons. There was some satisfaction to be gained from that. Yes, wins are just a counting stat, but the object of the game still remains to win.

This marks the beginning of a new season, but the thread has not been lost from all those that have come before.

"I think it's a new chapter, a new season, there are what-ifs, how's this going to work, where are we going to go and all that stuff," he said. "At the same time they all blend together. People say the same thing. I remember January 1st hit this year, my wife [Farrah] looked at me and said, 'We got to leave for spring training in a month.' It's just a constant flow, a constant packing, of moving, of change. At the same time, 'Yeah, OK, 2011 is over. Next. Bring on 2012.'"

Lester does not want to leave 2011 completely behind, despite the stain it left on his reputation for being portrayed among the clubhouse laggards indifferent to the plight of teammates out on the field, without stating his determination to turn a negative into a positive.

"For me it helped me look myself in the mirror," Lester said, "and whether what was going on in the clubhouse actually was going on or not, I need to be down there to support my teammates a little more. Instead of getting my work done during a game, let's fit it in before the game so I can be in the dugout a little more, just being a better teammate."

That message was conveyed to Lester not only in newspaper headlines but in face-to-face conversations with his teammates. "I told guys, 'Don't ever think just because I'm not in the dugout, I'm not watching the game or not rooting you guys on, I'm still glued to the TV even if I may be upstairs doing my arm stuff or icing.' Some of their responses were, that's fine, but we'd still like you in the dugout."

That issue of showing more solidarity extends beyond the pitchers who took the brunt of the heat after being made into caricatures in some media accounts.

"That goes for every player on the bench, who sometimes go in the room downstairs (behind the dugout) to make a more conscious effort, not only for us guys that got buried, but for everybody else to be on the bench and root teammates on."

Those teammates, he said, have played a huge role in his gaudy .691 winning percentage (76-34). "I know how fortunate I am, to have been in this organization with the boppers we have," he said. "You give up 3, they're going to score 4 for you."

Do we fully grasp what we have in Jon Lester?

"I think that you really don't see the form of a pitcher until he pitched for five years," he said. "You take five years of consistent starts, that's what the pitcher is."

By that measure then, we should, in this his fifth full season, see him for what he is.

"I would think, yeah, I've been pretty consistent," he said. "The biggest thing for me is get to 200 innings, get to 30 starts, and the rest, especially with this team, will take care of itself. I want to play for these guys, just go out and compete, get 200 innings. If I do that, I'll be around 15 wins or whatever. We'll see where we're at by the end of the season."

On Thursday, it begins anew for Jon Lester. It remains ever the same.