CLEVELAND -- If you have a shred of humanity, watching Jon Lester take a major league mound for the first time since being diagnosed with cancer in late August of 2006 and win a 6-2 decision over a tough Cleveland Indians lineup last night had to tug at the heartstrings.
It almost didn't matter whether he pitched well. Oh, that concerned Lester, but all that mattered to his fans and to those who love him most was that he took the walk to the mound and toed the dirt around the rubber as a healthy, well-adjusted 23-year-old.
His parents were at Jacobs Field to see their son pitch in a major league uniform again. How dignified he seemed as he stood tall, looking in to catcher Jason Varitek for the signal. What a message he sent to those stricken with anaplastic large cell lymphoma, what inspiration he gave one and all.
"It felt real good," Lester said. "It was great to be back with these guys again."
This is a kid who never blamed anyone or anything for his fate. He quietly and bravely went through his intense chemotherapy treatments over the winter in his hometown outside Seattle, hoping everything would turn out OK. Then, when he found out it had, he allowed himself some time to just breathe. He allowed himself to just be a young man who had beaten something bigger than the Cleveland Indians.
NESN's Tina Cervasio interviewed Lester's parents during the game, and even though his mother, especially, struggled to speak because she was so choked up with emotion, one could tell what they must have been feeling -- joy, pride, elation, thankfulness, faith, hope, love.
What everyone saw was a young man who had fought to live, and lived to fight again.
Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell remembers that feeling all too well. He battled testicular cancer, and when he set foot on the field again it was with a new team -- the Florida Marlins -- a team he never had played for.
"Adrenaline-wise sure, I know what it felt like," said Lowell. "I'm just happy he had a good start. It would have been easy for him to get caught up in a comeback. I know that he and I absolutely feel blessed. It throws things pretty quickly into perspective . . . what's really important and what's not. Once you've taken the right steps to correct your health issues, then . . . he's worked his whole life to prepare for his career. He doesn't want to stop now. A big, defining moment would be to make a great major league career out of this. That would make the story that much better."
Lester was thrilled his parents got to see it. He was thrilled to have pitched so well -- allowing only a Grady Sizemore two-run homer in the third inning; he got his revenge when he struck out Sizemore on a 93-mile-per-hour fastball to end the fourth unscathed after he'd loaded the bases with one out.
Lester didn't have to be Superman. Been there, done that. He was brought back to the major leagues from Pawtucket to replace the struggling Julian Tavarez in the rotation.
The Red Sox have been cautious with Lester. They held him back in spring training. They held him back once camp broke. He then suffered a forearm strain which set him back. He has taken baby steps.
Originally the word from the Boston organization was that it wanted to see Lester put together two or three strong Triple A starts before bringing him back. And with the Sox enjoying a double-digit lead in the standings until recently, there was no need to rush it.
He never did pitch two or three good starts in a row, though he was OK in three of his last four.
We don't totally know the team's motivation for bringing him up for this game. We know some of the obvious reasons -- Tavarez was struggling; the Indians don't like to face lefties, and Lester had beaten them last Aug. 2. Also, the trading deadline is drawing nearer (next Tuesday), and last night's start improved his stock even more as teams like the Rangers, who love Lester and are dangling Mark Teixeira, had to love what they saw.
We also know Curt Schilling is scheduled for one more rehab start this week, and when he returns the Sox will have six starting pitchers. Kason Gabbard has pitched way too well to even be considered the odd man out, unless he comes out Thursday and the Indians make his knees buckle. But short of that, Boston has six starters for five spots.
What he did last night reinforces the notion that while he is on every team's wish list, maybe it would be better if Lester remains a Red Sox. His story is just too powerful.
His courage is undeniable. That came to play in that fourth inning, which was very tedious and stressful when Lester loaded the bases with one out on a double by Ryan Garko and two walks. But Lester induced a Josh Barfield tapper back to the mound that he juggled at first and then found the handle on in time to force Garko at the plate. Lester reared back and struck out the very tough Sizemore on three 93-m.p.h. fastballs that equaled his high velocity reading for the night. What a great moment.
He breezed through the fifth, 1-2-3. He had thrown 87 pitches and there was nobody warming up. In the sixth he induced a Franklin Gutierrez double-play grounder to get out of the inning after allowing a single to Jhonny Peralta.
He came off the mound with a 5-2 lead, looking confident and strong.
He got slaps on the back and attaboys from his teammates. The Red Sox fans in the crowd cheered. Manager Terry Francona walked down to the end of the bench to congratulate him.
Six innings. Ninety-six pitches. A win over the Indians.
What a comeback.
What a story.
He said it will take a while for the magnitude of the night to sink in and that he remains healthy and determined. Like Lowell, he's hoping he can reach the day when he never has to speak of his painful past, when he can "put that behind me and just go back to pitching and not worry about things.
"But right now every three months I have to go back and get that reality check," he said of his checkups to determine whether the cancer has returned.
"Hopefully we can put it behind us . . . and . . . just go out pitching. Not to be able to worry about anything."
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com.