Jon Lester: No quick fixes
Struggling Red Sox left-hander trying mightily to figure things out
Indeed, the Jon Lester Revitalization Project is a bit more involved than your typical eighth-grade science fair.
There's more to it than pouring vinegar into a papier-mâché volcano, adding baking soda, and watching it explode and ooze all over the place.
Lester's resurgence is a necessity for the success of the Boston Red Sox, and he's tried everything to turn his season around. Currently, he is 5-8 with a 5.46 ERA and seems to be getting worse instead of better. Lester has a 15.32 ERA in his past three starts, including Sunday's game against the Toronto Blue Jays, in which he allowed 11 earned runs in four innings.
He threw his normal between-starts bullpen session Wednesday afternoon at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, where he worked on a few adjustments in order to find the proper feel and delivery. Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, pitching coach Bob McClure, team trainers and even a pair of stand-in hitters watched the session.
Afterward, everyone was pleased.
"Lester had a long throwing session and said he felt great, and to me he looked great," Valentine said. "I talked to the hitters [Daniel Nava and Pedro Ciriaco], and they said, 'We saw great stuff.' It wasn't like they saw anything that made them think he should change anything."
Rehabbing pitcher John Lackey watched the bullpen session, too.
"He looked good, man," Lackey said. "He's working hard at it. He's trying to make a couple little adjustments. It's going to come for him. He's working too hard at it and he's got too much talent."
Lester did not want to talk much about the session, calling it just another bullpen. The significance was heightened because of the left-hander's struggles and because Valentine originally said Lester would face live hitters. That wasn't the case, as the session took place in the bullpen with Nava and Ciriaco standing next to the plate.
Lester is looking ahead and not at what has already happened.
"I can't worry about it. It is what it is," he said. "I've made some adjustments and I'll go from there."
ESPNBoston.com colleague Gordon Edes reported Wednesday morning that other teams have inquired with the Red Sox about Lester's services, but according to a major league source, Boston will not trade the left-hander.
Prior to Wednesday's game, Lester said he's happy where he is.
"It makes you feel good that you're wanted," Lester said. "That's kind of the whole point of trade inquires is the fact that other teams want you. It's nice, but it's nice to be here and nice to be wanted here.
"I'm sure it's something that goes on every year; it's just a little more publicized this year because of obviously not very good numbers and some other nonsense that was let out, or said earlier this year about [me] being unhappy and all that other stuff.
"When it comes down to the fact of being wanted, it's a good feeling. That's what everybody wants in life and in your job. It gives you that extra confidence that even though I'm not doing what I normally do, people still see the good and want what I've done in the past."
The Red Sox pitching staff is a close group, especially Lester, Beckett, Clay Buchholz and the rehabbing Lackey. Lester and Beckett haven't contributed consistently this season, and while Buchholz has come on strong after a sluggish start, all four have struggled at points in their careers, and through it they've supported each other no matter what.
The thought that the Red Sox would consider trading Lester because of his struggles is laughable to other members of the pitching staff.
"I'm sure a lot of teams want him," Lackey said. "It doesn't surprise me at all. There are a lot of teams that would want a guy like that. This is the first time he's ever struggled. It's not that big of a deal to stick behind a guy who's done what he's done. I think it's a no-brainer."
When Buchholz was a top pitching prospect in the Red Sox organization, every July he would read, listen to and hear all the trade rumors that involved him and others. He's not surprised Lester's name has been mentioned in the rumor mill, but he believes Lester will turn things around and help the Red Sox earn a postseason berth for the first time since 2009.
"I was in that situation in the minor leagues coming up," Buchholz said. "It was Michael Bowden, Jacoby [Ellsbury] and myself; we were all in those [trade rumors]. For Jon, being here for as long as he has and done the things that he's done with this team, and baseball in general, obviously everybody knows how good he is.
"Sometimes the game gets a little harder for you at some points, but he's one of those guys who works and drives to get through it. People can sit in the stands and boo him all they want, but he's our guy and everybody on this team knows that. He just hit a little bit of a rough patch right now, but he'll find his way through it because he always does."
Lester is known to have a solid work ethic. Between each of his starts, he works out, watches video and studies scouting reports on the upcoming opponent.
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"He's a horse," Buchholz said. "The majority of the time he goes out there, he gives the team a chance to win, and that's the definition of a starting pitcher. You don't necessarily have to go out and win every game. Even when you don't have your good stuff, you find ways to get around the big innings, and that's what he's so good at. His last couple of starts, you don't ever think [struggles] will happen in back-to-back-to-back games, but it does. You've got to get past it. He battles through everything that comes his way and he's a guy who will get through it."
Let's not forget Lester's past and the fact that he won the clinching Game 4 of the 2007 World Series against the Colorado Rockies. And since becoming a full-time starter with the Red Sox in 2008, he's won at least 15 games each season.
Lester entered 2012 with a 76-34 record in 155 games (154 starts) for a .691 winning percentage, which was the third-highest mark among major leaguers with at least 50 decisions since 1900.
"That gets forgotten really quick, but not by myself," Lester said of his past performances.
This season, for the first time in his pro career, some fans at Fenway Park have booed Lester. He's on record as saying he's embarrassed by his performance, but based on his past success and his ability, the southpaw knows he can return to being the club's ace.
"I have to remember, and maybe look up the stuff every now and again to remind myself, and watch video," he said. "It is what it is and it's in the past. Baseball sucks because it's very cliched. No matter how honest or full of [expletive] someone is, you've got to have a short memory.
"You've got to have a short memory about the last pitch, you've got to have a short memory about the last start, you've got to have a short memory about your last bullpen and think, 'What do I need to do right now to make myself better?' Then when it's my turn to pitch, I just need to believe I've done everything I can to be in a good position."
Sunday's start against the Blue Jays at Fenway Park was one of the worst performances of his career. He allowed 11 runs on nine hits, including four home runs, with five walks and two strikeouts in only four innings of work.
Valentine and Lester spoke Tuesday afternoon about putting a "proactive schedule" in place in order for the starter to revive his season. That started with his bullpen session Wednesday, and Lester is hoping his luck will change once he takes the mound against the Yankees on Saturday in New York.
Lester has enjoyed success against his team's storied rival, posting an 8-4 record with a 4.33 ERA in 18 starts against the Yankees. He's been especially good at Yankee Stadium, with a 6-2 record. While he's looking to rekindle his success, Lester realizes the Yankees have a dangerous lineup, one he can't take lightly.
"It's the Yankees," he said. "It doesn't matter your stats or anything like that. It's still the Yankees, and you still have to prepare and have a good plan going in and obviously have that in place. You have to go out and execute those pitches, and if you don't, that lineup will definitely hurt you.
"It's like everything else. You can't worry about your past success or your past failures, just know that you've put yourself in the best position to succeed and know that when you step on the rubber, you have a better plan than these guys and I'm just going to beat them. That's all you can think about."
The only thing Lester is concerned with at this point is turning things around. It will be a major confidence boost for Lester and the Red Sox if he can start that turnaround Saturday at Yankee Stadium and keep it rolling for the remainder of the season.