Lester was a mainstay in the rotation for the Red Sox from June 10-Aug. 23 last season, but his career path was temporarily halted when he diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma.
After six chemotherapy treatments, Lester was declared cancer-free in December.
His velocity back up to snuff over his last couple of Minor League starts, Lester's last hurdle is simply to get his stamina back to 100 percent.
"We want to get him to a place, like a pitch count, which he's coming up to now ... like this next time out, he'll probably be at 85 [pitches] I think, where he can go and completely compete," said Francona. "Take the shackles off and go pitch as good as you can pitch. Stay out there until the game dictates that you come out. That's kind of the next step."
Manny due for breakout: The way Francona sees it, Manny Ramirez's stats entering Wednesday's game (.205, no homers, six RBIs) did not represent the way the cleanup hitter was swinging the bat.
Symbolic of that was the scorching liner Ramirez hit on Tuesday that happened to be right at Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells. It wasn't as if Ramirez could have hit the ball any harder.
"I don't think he looks bad," said Francona. "He got into a period last year where it was early and he couldn't stay back. He's tracking balls, he's taking some swings where he's lining out. I actually think he looks pretty good. He hit that ball to center field last night. That's just a hang with 'em. It's a lineout that he just scorched. Remember the night in Texas he hit three balls hard [for outs]? It's unfortunate. But he looks OK."
For whatever reason, Ramirez has started off slow in each of the past three seasons. Last year, he started the season by going 16 games without a home run.
Okajima stepping up: After surrendering a home run to John Buck -- the first Major League hitter he faced -- on April 2 in Kansas City, lefty reliever Hideki Okajima has been unscored upon in his past five outings.
Okajima struck out the side in the seventh inning of Tuesday's 2-1 loss to the Blue Jays.
Overall, he has a 1.35 ERA.
"I do think there's some newness there," said Francona. "As much video as you watch, and I'm sure they have an advance scout, this guy throws a really good changeup. Until you see it, it's hard to [gauge]. You need to step in the box. Even when hitters see it, it's still a good pitch. It's interesting. It really makes him a valuable weapon down there. It looks like he's getting real confident with it, too."
Everyone pitching in: Heading into Wednesday's action, the Sox had allowed three runs or fewer in seven consecutive games. It marked the first time a Boston pitching staff had done that over seven games since May 11-19, 1994. The Sox also entered the night second in the American League with a 2.68 ERA.
"The mentality is you play a series and you move on," said Francona. "But it's been pretty good. And I think some of the success in the bullpen is because our starters have gotten pretty deep and we've been able to follow, have somebody ready to bail out somebody. There's always that mix. You're trying to find the right mix, and rarely is it perfect."
Dice-K a day later: The more Francona thought about Tuesday's game, the more impressed he was by Daisuke Matsuzaka's effort, even though it came in a losing effort.
"Going back and thinking about the game last night, it's a shame because even the inning that got [messed] up, it started out fine. He just went through about a 20-, 25-pitch sequence there where it just got out of wack," Francona said. "Before and after that, he was throwing fastball down, and then he elevated it by design, to Wells. It was crisp. It was good."
On deck: In Thursday afternoon's finale of this three-game set, Julian Tavarez will make his return to the mound following a rain-induced 11 days of rest. He'll be opposed by one of the best pitchers in the game -- Toronto's Roy Halladay. First pitch is slated for 12:37 ET.