Lester taking to new role with Red Sox

Jon Lester has gone from cancer survivor to hot young pitcher,

to the anchor of one of the strongest rotations in baseball.

The Red Sox left-hander is now being asked to mentor Casey

Kelly, the team’s first pick in the 2008 draft, and other young

pitchers in the organization – and it seems that everything is

finally catching up to him.

“I don’t really look at myself like that,” said Lester, who

turned 26 in January. “I still follow Josh (Beckett) around and I

still try to do the same things he does in order to prepare because

it works. So to be put in that group, it’s an honor.”

Joining the power-throwing Lester and Beckett in the rotation

are Daisuke Matsuzaka, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and possibly Tim

Wakefield.

But it’s Lester who has evolved into the staff ace, going 31-14

in his first two full seasons after the cancer scare. He had a 3.41

ERA and a .242 batting average against, both the fifth-best in the

American League last year.

“Well, we all are,” Lester said Friday, when asked about being

at the top of the rotation. “You guys can label us with whatever

you want, but in my mind it takes five starters to win a

championship, and that was proven back in ’07.

“It’s going to take all of us, all six of us the whole

season.”

Lester got off to a slow start last season, going into June at

4-5 with a 5.65 ERA. But he was 11-3 the rest of the way, with a

2.35 ERA as Boston chased another postseason berth.

“It was just my time to struggle,” Lester said. “The more I

look back on it, I didn’t do anything wrong. I made some bad

pitches when I didn’t need to, had some bad innings.

“I did everything right until I let go of the pitch and the

pitch just wasn’t executed. So there’s nothing that I can

physically do in spring training – throw more pitches or throw less

pitches or whatever it is – to prepare myself for that. I guess

it’s just kind of one of those growing pains you kind of have to go

through.”

Boston manager Terry Francona also couldn’t explain Lester’s

early struggles.

“It’s not a lack of effort,” Francona said. “Beckett went

through the same tribulations, trials, whatever, and Lester had a

tough what, six weeks. He didn’t feel very confident, and he’d make

a pitch – it would be one of those things where he’d make a pitch,

it was a ball. He’d make a pitch, it was a hit. And then things

kind of snowballed.

“I don’t think he felt very good about himself. He felt good

physically but he wasn’t being rewarded. And then he got on a roll

and things kind of took off. Never slowed down.”

He should certainly be in a good frame of mind if, for no other

reason, than a trip to see his oncologists in November came back

with good news.

“I was three years (cancer-free),” he said. “So get two more,

hopefully, and then everything is good and we can just completely

forget about it.”

Elsewhere in the rotation, Francona said a preliminary exam by

Dr. Tom Gill of Daisuke Matsuzaka’s ailing back “very good, very

encouraging. But we don’t have any updates on when he’s going to

throw. There’s a chance maybe (Saturday) we will.”

Francona also met Friday with Wakefield, who had offseason back

surgery.

“The thing we encouraged in our meeting today was his winter

was a little bit cut short because of the surgery,” Francona said.

“We’re not looking for the quick fix, we’re looking for the long

haul, because of how important he is to us.”

Francona also said he has no concerns about Beckett’s contract,

which expires at the end of this season, because of the way the

pitcher and general manager Theo Epstein handle business.

“Zero. Zero,” Francona said. “I just know how he approaches

things. I know how Theo approaches things. I’ve heard their

communications. It’s not a concern.”

The team’s first official spring training workout is scheduled

for Saturday, at 9:30 am at the player development complex.