Jon Lester's last turn on the mound this season for the Red Sox, in last night's 11-6 romp over the Oakland A's, was a microcosm of the topsy-turvy, yearlong battle he fought to regain his form after making an emotional return from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
The Fenway Park crowd of 36,570 knew Lester's feel-good story would have had a more fitting epilogue in the playoffs, but after the 23-year-old lefthander lasted just 4 1/3 innings, his shortest outing since he went 3 2/3 Sept. 12 against Tampa Bay, it was abundantly clear he is likely the odd man out of the Sox' four-man postseason rotation.
"There were a lot of ups and downs this year," said Lester, taking stock of a season in which he was unbeaten (4-0, 4.72 ERA) in 11 appearances. "It seems that I couldn't really string too many starts together where I had good performances. I'm glad to be up here with these guys and, hopefully, I can keep on going. We'll see where we go.
"It's just been a battle all year," he added. "Consistency-wise, it hasn't been there, but physically I feel a lot better than I did last year at this time. Like I said, it's just been a battle and it's been a lot of ups and downs, but looking back on the year, hopefully, there'll be more ups than downs."
Asked if he felt he was auditioning for a playoff spot last night, Lester said, "I mean, I guess, yeah. But you just try to go out and pitch the best you can and, hopefully, the outcome is a little bit better than that, but every time you go out there it's an audition for something."
Even, perhaps, for a spot in the bullpen? "I'll do anything they ask me to do," Lester said. "[The playoffs] is a great thing to be a part of, and any way I can be a part of it, I'll do it."
With his status uncertain, Lester came out battling the A's. He allowed five runs (four earned) on seven hits, including a three-run homer in the fourth to shortstop Donnie Murphy (which gave the A's a 4-3 lead) and a solo shot in the fifth to designated hitter Mike Piazza (which tied the game, 5-5).
Those fireworks offset the season-high nine strikeouts Lester rang up, punching out five of the first seven batters he faced, as he became only the second Sox pitcher since 1957 to record nine strikeouts in a start of less than five innings. Hideo Nomo accomplished the feat Aug. 6, 2001, fanning nine Texas Rangers in 4 2/3 innings.
"I think the strikeouts showed the kind of stuff he has," said manager Terry Francona. "I thought early in the game his cutter was strong, tight, and good. Then he got two outs, walk, home run. Then he gets behind Piazza, 2 and 0, and throws a fastball down the middle. Again, he's still a young pitcher who's developing, and he can work himself into some binds, but his stuff is still good."
Lester was a work in progress all season.
His comeback began in Single A Greenville on a rehab assignment April 5, which led him to Triple A Pawtucket, where he encountered a setback when he experienced muscle cramping in his left forearm May 2. That necessitated a second rehab stint. He came off the disabled list June 11, was optioned to Pawtucket, and went 4-5 with a 3.89 ERA in 14 starts before he joined the Sox July 23 at Cleveland, where he recorded a 6-2 triumph.
At no time, Lester said, did he feel pressured by the Sox.
"I always said that they were doing the right thing at the time," Lester said. "It was just the competitor in me that I wanted to be at this level. I've never said they did the wrong thing or took it too slow or the pitch counts were too low or whatever.
"They've always done the right thing. They've always had my best interest [at heart]. That just shows you how good of a management and people they have here that they care more about you as a person and you being right before they rush you back up to put you in a bad situation."
Asked to evaluate Lester's season, Francona said, "I think even before he picked up a ball, it was a success. Then we were able to start talking about baseball, which was really enjoyable. Again, he's a young, really, really good young pitcher who's still developing.
"And his development was interrupted, but the more he pitches with health, he's going to be a good pitcher for a long time. His mechanics and his arm strength and his conditioning are so good that you can envision him pitching for a long time, with a lot of health."
Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.