ST. PETERSBURG -- Jon Lester had been in a strange position for the better part of a week, hoping for his chance to avenge a shaky start in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series.
Yet there was nothing Lester could do about it but go through his normal routine and throw it all upon the shoulders of his teammates. Luckily for Lester, he plays for the Red Sox, who prefer taking care of business the hard way.
But here it is, winner-move-on, loser-go-home. And Lester, whose Red Sox were 7-0 in games he had started against the Rays before his Game 3 clunker, has no intention of allowing Tampa Bay to slip past him a second time.
"Obviously, any time you don't pitch up to par, you want to get back on the mound and prove to yourself and to other people that you can pitch," Lester said. "Tomorrow, hopefully, I can go out and pitch like I pitched all year and keep going, and we can keep going forward."
Lester vs. Rays in 2008
The only place left for Lester to lead the Red Sox would be to the World Series, and he has experience pitching in clinching games. It was Lester who made the start in Game 4 of the World Series, as Boston whizzed past the Rockies last season, though the left-hander said that experience would not be nearly as important as just focusing on 60 feet, six inches.
"I don't think last year has any relevance to this year," Lester said. "I just have to go out and execute my game plan. If I don't do that, obviously, we're not going to have the outcome we want. If I go out there and execute my pitches, and keep a focused head and keep calm and go out there and do what I need to do, then everything should be just fine."
The Red Sox will be hoping that Lester's Game 3 start against the Rays, a 9-1 loss, was just an aberration. Prior to that start, Lester had not given up an earned run in four postseason appearances. Making his next turn after beating the Angels to close out the AL Division Series and keep the Red Sox off a cross-country flight to Anaheim for a decisive Game 5, Lester gave up five runs (four earned) on eight hits in 5 2/3 innings.
"It's going to come down to who plays better," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "It's probably pretty appropriate. We come down to the last game, and whoever plays better gets to move on. We have a lot of respect for how good they've played, but we also really like our ballclub."
TALE OF THE TAPE: GAME 7 STARTERS
2008 regular season
30 GS, 11-9, 3.70 ERA, 61 BB, 128 K
33 GS, 16-6, 3.21 ERA, 66 BB, 152 K
.245 OPP BA (9th in AL)
.727 win pct. (5th in AL)
2 GS, 1-1, 4.02
3 GS, 1-1, 1.83
2 GS, 1-1, 4.02
4 GS, 2-1, 1.86
At Tropicana Field
15 GS, 7-3, 2.89
15 GS, 7-3, 2.89
2 GS, 1-0, 6.75
Against this opponent
5 GS, 2-1, 3.86
4 GS, 3-1, 2.10
7 GS, 3-1, 3.49
8 GS, 4-1, 3.72
Loves to face
Kevin Youkilis (1-for-16)
Rocco Baldelli (0-for-5)
Hates to face
Jacoby Ellsbury (6-for-16)
Jason Bartlett (5-for-12)
Why he'll win
Best stuff on staff
Memories, even around baseball-crazed New England, cannot possibly be only one game short. Lester stepped into the role of potential Red Sox ace this summer, going 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA in 33 starts for the Red Sox, including a no-hitter against the Royals in May.
Boston's players have seen him succeed plenty on the big stage, and they expect nothing less in Game 7.
"I'll tell you what -- I feel real well about giving Jon Lester the ball," Kevin Youkilis said. "The guy has pitched well for us all year. We're just excited to have him step on the mound. Hopefully, he can throw the way he did a lot this year and help us win a game."
Not knowing if this day would come, Lester said he went through his normal workload and had to try to keep his feelings about the game on an even keel.
"You just have to do the same routine that you would if it's a regular-season game," Lester said. "You know, I've done the same workouts -- prepared the same, done everything that I normally do in between starts -- and it's just a matter of mentally staying focused."
Redemption surely would be sweet for Lester, who said he was "pretty excited" but is working to keep any possible jitters in check.
"I can't let my emotions or anything of that magnitude get in the way," Lester said. "I have to worry about executing pitches. If I let my emotions get too high, that gets in the way of me executing. As long as I go out there and stay calm and focused and be committed to every pitch, everything should be fine."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.