Lester: Beckett wasn't the problem
Red Sox pitcher describes relief, surprise, resolve after friend was sent packing
BOSTON -- The night before Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington finalized a blockbuster, nine-player trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Jon Lester was warming up in the bullpen preparing for a start against the Kansas City Royals at Fenway Park.
At the time, the left-hander had no idea that manager Bobby Valentine was tearing up his lineup card for that night's game and replacing it -- minus a few key players, including first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.
For him to pitch every five days like he did, with what he was dealing with last year, the year before, even this year, it takes a lot of guts to go out there.” -- Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester, on former teammate Josh Beckett
Lester pitched well that night, working seven solid innings and allowing three runs on six hits with four walks and six strikeouts. He earned the win as Boston defeated the Royals 4-3. Afterward, during his normal postgame news conference, Lester was relaxed and smiling, and his answers were more in-depth than they had been in quite some time.
There was definitely something different about him.
The quick reaction would be to think that, even though he and Beckett are close friends, maybe Lester was happy about the trade -- that perhaps without all the negativity surrounding Beckett, he would be able to regain his ace status.
A Red Sox team source said the organization agrees with that idea. Lester does not.
When a reporter began to ask Lester about it, the pitcher finished the question by saying: "What, that basically Josh was the cancer and now we can focus on things?"
"Regardless of what I say about Josh, nobody's going to believe me. Regardless of what anybody else in this clubhouse says about Josh, nobody's going to believe it. Regardless of what Josh says about his time in Boston, nobody's going to believe it," Lester said. "So when it comes down to it, I guess everybody's got the answer for it. He was the problem, we got rid of the problem and now everybody's just happy-go-lucky and now we can go win. That's not the case.
"Josh was a very important part of this team for a very long time. He's affected a lot of young players in positive ways more than people think. With all the s--- that came out last year, it has nothing to do with Josh as a person, Josh as a teammate, Josh as a baseball player. He's obviously going to be missed as a pitcher and will be missed as a friend, for me, but people are going to think what they want about it. No matter what we try to do to change it, we're not going to change it."
Lester was asked about his more relaxed and open demeanor that night he posted the victory against the Royals. His reaction?
"I think a lot of guys in here were just happy for him," Lester said of Beckett. "It was such a hard last two years for him, last three years -- physically, mentally -- and when you're made out to be the demon of the team, it's tough. I mean, the guy got hurt, walked off the mound and he was getting booed. That's got to be tough for him.
"People don't get to see the day-to-day grind of what we do and how hard it is to be ready to pitch every five days. With that being said, it's hard to play every day as well. For him to pitch every five days like he did, with what he was dealing with last year, the year before, even this year, it takes a lot of guts to go out there."
Lester conceded that maybe there was a part of him that knew this pitching staff was now his to lead. Still, he was in a bit of shock that his good friend, the same guy who helped the Red Sox win the World Series in 2007, was gone.
"It was more of that relief factor that he gets a new start. I was more kind of surprised that it actually went through," Lester said. "It's one of those deals you read about and think that there's no way this is going to happen. It happened and I was kind of surprised."
That's the business of baseball.
When Lester posted that victory against the Royals, it was his third straight win, which is his longest winning streak of a subpar season. His following start after the trade, he pitched an eight-inning complete game but suffered a 5-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels.
He followed that up with a 4-3 win over the Seattle Mariners on Sept. 4, when he allowed three runs on nine hits, including two home runs, in improving his record to 9-11.
"It's business as usual," Lester said about life without Beckett in the clubhouse. "That's kind of the funny thing about baseball; it's not necessarily you move on, but you do. It's one of those deals you just have to kind of forget and go. You can't worry about it or dwell on it, you just have to keep plugging away and worry about what the next task at hand is.
"As far as that friendship and the everyday stuff, yeah, I mean he's been my throwing partner since the first day I got here. It's obviously different and something you have to get used to. It's baseball. It's kind of the crappy part of the business."
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When Lester debuted with the Red Sox in 2006, Beckett also was in his first year in Boston but had already been a World Series winner and MVP when he helped the Florida Marlins to a championship victory over the New York Yankees in 2003. At the time, the Sox baseball operations staff, then-general manager Theo Epstein and then-manager Terry Francona all told Lester to follow Beckett's lead. Lester followed the advice and it worked.
Lester learned from Beckett, Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield, and he has taken aspects from each to create his own style on and off the field. He said he's also tried to be himself because that's when he's at his best.
"My mindset changed when I got to the big leagues, as far as what I needed to do on a day-to-day basis," Lester said. "In the minors, you think you have all the answers and you think you figure out what works for you. There are still bits and pieces I use from '05, but really getting to the big leagues, working with the trainers, working with the strength coaches and working with Josh has morphed into my own routine.
"Josh instilled that early on for myself and some of the other younger guys, saying 'You've got to work hard and you need to prepare.' He prepared differently than [Schilling]. Schill prepared video-wise and mentally, that was his way to gain the edge on the other team. For us, it was 'I need to get in the gym, I need to run and I need to do those things to get the edge.' That's still the case today."
Now that Beckett is gone, Lester understands he'll need to be more of a leader for the pitching staff.
"I've thought about it since that day," Lester said, referring to the megadeal. "I still think I was a leader, regardless whether he was here or not. Baseball's kind of a funny sport where you just don't have one guy. Obviously, we had Tek here for so long and he was the captain, he had that 'C' on his jersey, but in baseball you have so many interchangeable parts. For me, I'm not a vocal guy. If I show, like I've done from Day 1, that I do my job, I work hard, I pitch every five days and I compete on that fifth day, I think everything else speaks for itself.
"I'm not going to go up to Mark [Melancon] and jump his ass for no reason just to be a leader. I don't think that's being a leader. I think a leader is someone who tries to do their job every day the best he can and go from there. [Dustin Pedroia] is a more vocal guy; that's him. I just try to do my job and hopefully everything else falls into place."
Doing his job and finding success haven't been that easy for Lester in 2012. This season, by far, has been his worst in the big leagues from a statistical standpoint. American League hitters began to make adjustments when facing Lester, and that has made a difference too. The southpaw's cutter has been an effective pitch during his career, but hitters this season figured out when and how he would try to execute the pitch.
At the All-Star break, Lester had a 5-8 record with a 5.46 ERA in 20 starts. He was frustrated and started to complain to fellow pitcher and good friend John Lackey -- who has missed the season after having Tommy John surgery last offseason.
Lackey briefly listened to Lester, then leaned over and said to him, "I'd die to be out there. Do you know how bad I miss pitching?"
Lester heard the message loud and clear. Since the All-Star break he's been better, posting a 4-3 record in eight starts. He says he's not focused on the numbers and wants to finish the season strong.
"For me, ever since that Toronto start," when Lester allowed 11 runs on nine hits in four innings against the Blue Jays on July 22 at Fenway, "as far as stats, I've kind of just thrown it away," Lester said. "For me, since the All-Star break, the adjustments I've made in my delivery, the adjustments I've made pitching, I think is a high note for me, regardless of what my stats say at the end of the season. To be able to make those adjustments midseason and continue to grind with them I feel like that's a positive.
"I'm just trying to take every little positive I can from this season and go into the offseason, regardless of what my stats say," he said. "I know I'm a better pitcher than what my stats say."
With the Red Sox in the midst of a dreadful skid, losing 11 of their last 12 games, Lester will face the Yankees on Tuesday night at Fenway Park. He is 9-4 with a 4.23 ERA in 20 career starts against New York, including a 2-2 record and a 5.11 ERA in eight starts at home.
Lester and the Red Sox are in an unfamiliar position. This club will attempt to play the role of spoiler in the AL East instead of contending for a postseason berth. From a personal standpoint, Lester is trying to make the most of a bad situation.
"It's been a rough year. It's been mentally and physically grinding for me," he said. "I've tried to keep my head up. I've tried to stay positive. I've tried to answer questions the best I could. It's gotten better. It's not perfect, but it's better. I'll continue that into the offseason and hopefully I have a more consistent year next season."
If he does have a better season in 2013, you can bet Beckett's name will come up again.