Lester growing into role as Boston's ace

Lester growing into role as Boston's ace

Lester growing into role as Boston's ace
Any one-year wonder can make an Opening Day start. But the true aces are the ones who get that nod year after year. Clearly, Jon Lester is trending toward the latter.

The power left-hander that the Red Sox proudly refer to as their ace will start his team's season for the second straight year.

This time, it will be in Detroit, against perhaps the best pitcher in baseball, Justin Verlander.

Thursday's 1:05 p.m. ET contest features as good a pitching matchup as any opener around baseball.

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"Like I've always said before, I don't pitch against [Verlander]," said Lester. "But at the same time, you know going into the game you can't make too many mistakes. He obviously proved that last year and in his career. He's a great pitcher that doesn't make a lot of mistakes to good teams, so it's going to be a battle. Go grind it out, see what happens."

For a man who knows how it feels to win the clinching game of a World Series and pitch a no-hitter, Lester's shaky start (5 1/3 innings, 6 hits, 5 ER, 3 HRs) in Texas during last year's opener was one of the few times in his career he didn't come through in a spotlight game.

As much as he thought he was ready for it, he now admits the pomp and circumstance of it all might have thrown him off just a tick. Now, Lester knows exactly what he should expect.

"You don't know what to expect until you do it, and then, when you do it, it's kind of like, 'Well, it's just a regular game.' There's a lot of hoopla that goes into the pregame stuff, which is awesome to be a part of," said Lester. "To stand on the side and watch it all is great. When you're actually warming up, it's tough to enjoy it. You just have to focus on being in the game."

Machine-like with his consistency, Lester has recorded 15-plus wins in each of the last four seasons. And at the age of 28, he might still be in the early phase of his prime.

Perhaps that Cy Young Award-caliber season -- the one in which he goes 22-4 and leads the league in strikeouts -- could still be in store. Who knows? It might even be this season.

The beauty of Lester is that he leaves those type of projections for outsiders.

Driven in his approach, Lester sets two goals for every season. The first is to be part of a World Series-winning team. The second is to pitch 200 innings.

That's why 2011 was a real downer for Lester despite his 15-9 record. Not only did the Red Sox miss the postseason following an epic September collapse, but Lester looks at the 191 2/3 innings he logged last year with disdain.

"Regardless of what the staff looks like, I want to make 30 starts, and hopefully with those 30 starts, you get to 200 innings," Lester said. "Last year, I was eight short. It feels like a failure. I don't feel like I did what I needed to. "

And when the 2011 season came crumbling down that night of Sept. 28 at Camden Yards, nobody felt worse about it than Lester, even though he certainly pitched well enough to win, giving up two runs over six innings on three days' rest.

Boston Red Sox
Projected Opening Day lineup
1 CF Jacoby Ellsbury
2 2B Dustin Pedroia
3 1B Adrian Gonzalez
4 3B Kevin Youkilis
5 DH David Ortiz
6 LF Cody Ross
7 SS Mike Aviles
8 C Jarrod Saltalamacchia
9 RF Ryan Sweeney
Projected rotation
1 LHP Jon Lester
2 RHP Josh Beckett
3 RHP Clay Buchholz
4 LHP Felix Doubront
5 RHP Daniel Bard
Full 25-man roster | Depth chart

"I stunk. We stunk," Lester said of the September collapse. "We're looking forward to really kind of proving people wrong. Last year, everyone wanted to give us the World Series title the first day. This year, I think we come in as the underdogs. I think that's going to be fun. I think it's going to be fun to see how guys react to that and how we go about our business."

Lester will go about his business with three plus pitches -- fastball, cutter and curveball.

Catcher Kelly Shoppach was in the Minor Leagues with Lester seven years ago before being reunited with him this spring.

"The last time I caught him, his cutter was this little baby cutter," said Shoppach. "It's a different pitch now. He's grown up and become a man and gone through a lot of stuff in his life. It might be more important than anything he does on the field. When you're forced to grow up in another way in this game, you tend to understand the reality of this game, not take it for granted and appreciate every opportunity you have."

Yes, Lester overcame cancer six years ago, which brings rare perspective to the challenges he faces on a baseball field. Nonetheless, he has a burning thirst for the competition, and to be there for his teammates.

Like all of them, he is looking for redemption.

"The biggest thing is that the hunger is there a little more," Lester said. "Guys want to win. We want to compete. We're going to do that. We're going to grind out every game. The biggest thing is to see what happens. Baseball is a long year. A lot of things can happen -- obviously, as we saw last year. We'll toe it up and grind it out and see what happens."

For the 2012 Red Sox, that grind will once again start with Lester on the mound.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.