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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Two straight years of starting the spring with an apology? That has to be getting as old for Jon Lester as it is for those folks back home who don't want to hear it.
We can promise you this. There won't be another mea culpa forthcoming next spring. Either Lester returns with all accounts settled, back to being a top-of-the-line left-hander, or he will be pitching in another uniform in 2014.
It's really that simple. The Red Sox hold a $13 million option on Lester's contract for next season. It's a no-brainer they pick it up if he pitches well, and they'll probably offer him an extension this winter too.
Let's say Lester reverts to form this season and does what he did the four seasons before 2012: Wins 15 or more games, pitches 200 or more innings, has an ERA+ of 120 or better (which means 20 percent better than the league average) and strikes out 150 or more batters. How many left-handed starters in baseball history have had as many as five such seasons?
|Jon Lester has worked to fix what ailed him last season, and manager John Farrell said that showed in his first bullpen session.|
Eight, according to Baseball-Reference.com: Randy Johnson (9), Lefty Grove (7), Rube Waddell (7), CC Sabathia (6), Sandy Koufax (5), Johan Santana (5), Mark Langston (5) and Steve Carlton (5).
So that's the choice you face. You can judge Lester on the bad September he had in 2011 and the indefensible season that followed in 2012, or you can consider the company he will be keeping if he proves last season an aberration.
Like the Red Sox, who have not yet approached Lester or his agent about an extension, you're entitled to wait and see. Hey, Lester understands why you, and they, would. He just wishes you could look at his career through a wider-angle lens than the one that sees only 2012.
"One down year, and now you're going to throw me to the wolves?" Lester said in a one-on-one conversation the other day, before he did the obligatory tour of duty on the media bench here Wednesday and tried to mollify his critics.
"I understand. I take the blame 100 percent. I pitched like s---. It was not fun. I didn't enjoy it. I hated every moment of it. I busted my ass to try to fix it."
Lester doesn't know how he can say it any more emphatically.
"It's on me," he said, offering a preview of the sentiment he expressed in slightly different form on the picnic bench. "I'm not blaming anybody else for what happened last year. It's not the pitching coach's fault, it's not Bobby [Valentine]'s fault, it's not our hitters' fault, it's not our defense's fault. It's my fault. I pitched like s---. I didn't make the adjustments I needed to make to right the ship earlier than I did."
But here's what he doesn't get: Amid the wreckage of a brutal season (9-14 record, 4.82 ERA), there are a few straws to grasp, something to make him feel as if all was not lost, that even in the dreck a few slivers of value can be found.
The fact that he made 17 quality starts, for example, 17 times in which he pitched six or more innings and gave up three or fewer runs. His record in those games was 7-5 with five no-decisions. They were not all masterpieces, to be sure, but surely even his harshest critics can concede that of the 10 times he either lost or had a no-decision while giving up three or fewer runs, it wouldn't have taken much to win a handful of those games.
You don't want to give him that? Fine. But at least acknowledge he didn't get his head handed to him every time he took the mound.
Or the fact he pitched eight or more innings four times, the same number of times he did so in 2011 and just two fewer than he did in 2010.
These don't even the score for the disastrous outings. What they offer to Lester are a couple of positives to build on for this season.
"I revamped my delivery to where it should have been in the middle of the year," he said. "You have to look at those small things. I'm trying to use those positives to get me back to being me. Some of those positives are me, some of the negatives aren't me, wash the negatives away, let's go to the bullpen, fix some things, have some fun and bust your butt."
The low point of Lester's season came July 22 in Fenway Park, when for reasons only known to the former Red Sox manager, Valentine allowed Lester to absorb an 11-run pounding from the Toronto Blue Jays in just four innings of work. In hindsight, what was Valentine trying to prove?
"You've got to ask Bobby," Lester said. "I pitch till they take the ball out of my hands. I wasn't going to go to the end of the dugout and say Bobby, 'What are you doing? Why am I still in this game?' That's his decision. I will pitch until you take me out of the game. That's how I've always been."
Lester was not as direct in his criticism of Valentine as David Ortiz was this week, but he made it clear the transition was not an easy one from Terry Francona, who wept when Lester triumphed after cancer and said he regarded him like a son.
"Bobby comes from a different time, a different era," Lester said. "Bobby is old school. That's fine. Hindsight is 20-20. I can pick apart him and if you wrote something about it, he could pick apart me. It's something that Bobby had to learn on the fly last year, we had to learn Bobby on the fly last year and now we're in this situation."
This situation being the return of John Farrell, Lester's former pitching coach, as manager. A move for the better, Lester said.
"It's just that comfort level of knowing you don't have to get to know him, at least for some of us," he said. "That's the tough part. It's just like any business. You're used to a guy running a company, he leaves, and you've got to get used to the guy coming in because he might run it completely differently."
Lester made 13 more starts after the Toronto beating. He went 4-6 with a 3.92 ERA.
"I pitched pretty well in August and September," he said. "I didn't pitch great, but I pitched pretty well. Those are the positives I'm trying to build off for this year. Going into the offseason, those are the things I needed to think about. I didn't need to focus on the Toronto start. I didn't need to focus on the other starts where I got my butt kicked."
On Wednesday, Lester said he didn't even watch the playoffs last season, kept his mind off baseball for a month as much as he could, then began preparations for what he trusts will be better days. Farrell, who watched Lester's first bullpen session of camp, said the early signs are all good.
"We've talked the last couple of days about the adjustments that he's going through, and today was a good day with that," Farrell said. "He had a very strong bullpen and is doing some of the things within his delivery that are consistent with what he was a couple of years ago. More importantly, he's locating the ball down in the strike zone. Again, it was the first bullpen, but a good one for him."
Where will it all lead? That's for Lester to determine, with his performance. The Red Sox haven't approached him about an extension, and he doesn't think they'll do so any time soon. "I think it's far from their mind," he said. "I think we need to get back to where we should be and then I think they'll start worrying about that stuff."
He predicts they'll try to lock up Dustin Pedroia first. Pedroia is signed through the 2014 season, with the club holding an option for 2015.
"I just think, knowing Pedey and knowing the Red Sox, I imagine it would be him first, that they try to get him done," Lester said.
His own contract status is not something he's worrying about, but acknowledges it's "different."
"Two years ago seemed so far away," he said. "Now it's here.
"I'm just trying to play it out. Hopefully we're good and we go to the playoffs. My goal every year is make 30 starts, throw 200 innings and hope everything else takes care of itself.
"I want to get back to being me. At the end of the year, we'll see where I'm at. If they pick it up, great. If they don't, we'll see what happens. There are so many unknowns."
Beginning with which Jon Lester shows up in 2013. He's confident he knows the answer to that one.