NEW YORK — It’s all about 2013 now. The Red Sox need to use this final month and a half to figure out whom to dump and whom to keep.
Jon Lester is a keeper.
Ah, yes, Jon Lester.
We remember him. He was the one with a 76-34 record in 155 career games. Among pitchers with at least 50 decisions, he owned the third-highest winning percentage (.691) in baseball history since 1900.
He was the one who beat cancer and came back to win the clinching game of the 2007 World Series against the Colorado Rockies when he was only 23 years old. He pitched a no-hitter at Fenway when he was 24. He made the All-Star team twice, won 19 games in 2010, and twice earned the honor of pitching the opening game of the season.
He was untouchable. Folks talked about him (almost) the way they talked about Justin Verlander and Tim Lincecum. Lester was an elite big league starter, a power lefty who could pitch inside at Fenway.
And then it all went away. Just like that. For no good reason. Lester got caught up in buckets of Popeye’s and red cups of beer. He followed Josh Beckett and John Lackey right off the cliff. He came up small when it mattered most in September. He couldn’t beat the Orioles in the last, most important game of 2011. He was one of the manager’s favorites, but he helped get Terry Francona fired.
Lester was the first to come clean after it all went down. He admitted that he messed up and said he owed it to the fans to come back and do better.
But he did not do better this year. He did much worse. And with each ineffective start, he grew more and more frustrated with the umpires, the media, and the pressures of Boston. Lester and bookend buddy Beckett were deemed most responsible for 120 games of bad baseball in Boston.
Things bottomed out July 22 when Lester gave up 11 runs in a single start. This prompted the Palace Revolt by Lester’s teammates. They believed Bobby Valentine intentionally embarrassed him (or maybe it was just a “round-table” discussion to ask for a new hot tub at Fenway).
Lester beat the moribund Indians last week with 12 strikeouts in six innings. Saturday in the Bronx, he pitched well again in a nationally televised 4-1 win over the first-place Yankees. Lester’s win salvaged a tough day for Sox ownership after Liverpool lost a big match to vaunted West Bromwich Albion, 3-0.
Lester gave up only five hits and one run in seven innings against the estimable Bronx Bombers. It was impressive. He finally looked like the guy who has been missing since last September.
“Another fine pitching performance by Lester — that has a good sound to it,’’ said Valentine. “He was confident, aggressive, a good-looking pitcher. His breaking ball is a little harder and he’s elevating his fastball.’’
Valentine clings to the notion that Lester has been better than his numbers (7-10, 5.03).
“Absolutely,’’ said the manager. “Sometimes it just happens in a year. Balls are hit for hits. A lot of them are well-placed. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it just stops. Hopefully, it has stopped.’’
Lester said he was happy that he was able to get swings and misses, and badly hit balls with his cut fastball.
“It’s been a grinding season,’’ he acknowledged again. “But I’m not giving up. If you keep working hard, things will turn . . . I’m just trying to execute pitch-by-pitch until Bobby takes the ball out of my hand.’’
This seemed like a nice place to ask Lester about the report of the Palace Revolt. So I asked Lester if he had any problem with Valentine leaving him in for the 11-run beating against the Jays.
“I pitch until he takes the ball out of my hand,’’ said the lefty.
Right. But was he bothered by being left in that game?
“I pitch until he takes the ball out of my hand,’’ he said again. “That’s all I can control.’’
OK, then. It’s clear that Lester was bothered by what Valentine did that day and it follows that his teammates would go to bat for him against Valentine. So much for the notion of the “round-table” exchange of ideas.
It’s all about 2013 now. Carl Crawford sees the obvious. The Globe’s Peter Abraham reported Saturday that Crawford is going to ask the Sox if he can have his elbow surgery this week.
When Valentine was asked about the report, he answered, “I might have to have surgery, too. A frontal lobotomy.’’
We can debate the merits of keeping Valentine, Beckett, Lackey, and other misfits of the wreckage of 2012, but there can be no doubt about Jon Lester. Despite this terrible season, he is something the Sox can build on. Lester is a keeper.
. . .Continued...