PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- Jon Lester was probably going to be optioned to Triple A Pawtucket after last night's final rehab start against Indianapolis anyway. But if there was any hesitation on the part of the Red Sox' brass, it was likely dispelled when Lester's outing was cut short because of cramping in his forearm in the third inning of a 5-1 loss.
The Sox phenom lasted only three innings, allowed two runs, and threw 63 pitches.
With no announcement made during the game, there was heightened curiosity as to why Lester had departed so early, until it was learned later that he was suffering from a cramp. Pawtucket manager Ron Johnson made the decision to replace him well shy of the 90-100 pitches Lester had been scheduled to throw.
"It just came on in the third inning," said Lester. "Threw a pitch and it kind of tightened up. It's one of those freak things that happened. I've never had it before. Hopefully, it goes away and everything will be fine."
For Lester, it came at a bad time. He wanted this outing to go smoothly. And everyone wanted it for him.
"I don't know anything," said Lester, when asked what's next for him. "You guys probably know more than I do. I'll find out one of these days what the deal is going to be, and obviously, this doesn't help my situation. It wouldn't hurt [to make another start here], but just like everyone else in that clubhouse, they want to be in Boston. We'll see what Theo [Epstein] and Tito [Francona] decide to do. I just have to agree with that and go from there."
The Sox have been trying to temper expectations of Lester, who will likely be optioned to Pawtucket by tomorrow at midnight, when his 30-day rehabilitation stint ends.
Lester, 23, dominated the Pirates' Triple A affiliate at the start, striking out leadoff batter Nyjer Morgan by employing crisp fastballs that were clocked at 91-93 miles per hour. But he mostly labored after that, walking three. He had a 1-2-3 second inning in which he threw 12 pitches, but he threw 25 in the first and 26 in the third.
He got out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the third when he struck out Jose Hernandez looking and got Russ Johnson to ground into a force at second base.
"I felt good," Lester said. "Early on, I was throwing the ball well. Probably threw too many fastballs. Didn't use my offspeed pitches enough. I left a cutter up and away to Hernandez [who stroked an opposite-field double to right, driving in the second run in the first inning]. It was probably going to be one of those nights where I had to battle through it."
During the third inning, pitching coach Mike Griffin visited the mound and had a chat with the lefthander. Lester then retired the final two hitters after walking two.
While the Red Sox have always been cautious about Lester's return to the big club, last night will lessen the enthusiasm slightly.
"I hope it's not a setback," Lester said. "It was just a cramp. My forearm tightened up a little bit. Hopefully, it doesn't set me back. Hopefully, in five days I'll make another start and everything's fine.
"I don't know if it was dehydration or what, but when the cramp started, they wanted to take me out. They didn't want to take any risk."
Lester was examined by PawSox physician Brian Busconi, who indicated there was no cause for concern. While Lester will be evaluated this morning, he wasn't certain whether any testing would be done.
"Not that I know of," said Lester. "I don't have any reason for it. It's in the forearm, so there's nothing to be worried about the elbow."
Even though the Red Sox are in first place and pitching on all cylinders, who wouldn't want an electric lefthander in their starting rotation?
If Lester had been ready to go, one of the problems for Epstein is the Sox have no pitchers in Boston with minor league options. If they need to make a move, it must be through trade or waivers, unless there's an injury. The affected pitchers could be Julian Tavarez, Joel Piñeiro, J.C. Romero, or Kyle Snyder.
Tavarez would have value to several teams, particularly National League clubs looking for a middle reliever or a starter. The Mets, Cardinals, Phillies, Rockies, Marlins, and Reds would all be candidates.
With Hideki Okajima pitching so well, Romero is expendable. Lefthanded relievers are always attractive. The Tigers are in desperate need of one, though Romero would have to prove he can be effective.
While Lester has cleared the biggest hurdle of his life, being given clearance to resume pitching in late December after a successful final chemotherapy treatment for anaplastic large cell lymphoma, last night's setback seemed small.
But for Lester, it was the first hiccup in an impressive comeback.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com.