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Dan Shaughnessy

Lester's feel-good story never gets old

JON LESTER His time to shine? JON LESTER His time to shine? (FILE/BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)

DENVER - Maybe after tonight he can just pitch.

Red Sox lefthander Jon Lester sat down for the standard day-before interview at Coors Field yesterday afternoon. He had to know what was coming. He had to know there were going to be a lot of questions about the cancer.

It's been like this throughout the 2007 season. There were cancer stories when he first showed up at spring training, looking strong and healthy and wanting to talk about anything but the cancer. Then there were cancer stories when he made his first minor league start, his first return-to-the-big-leagues start in Cleveland, his first start back home in Seattle, and his first start at Fenway Park.

And so yesterday, he knew it was coming. He's a smart young man and he knows that when the guy who had cancer one year ago makes a start in a World Series game, it's a story line for every media outlet.

Lester was asked eight questions at his press conference; five regarding his illness.

"I think that if people would have been in my situation they would have done the same thing," said the 23-year-old. "So, I don't think that I'm any different than anybody else. It just so happens that I play baseball and we're in the World Series and we're on a big stage."

"We were proud of Jon before this," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "What he went through . . . he handled it with grace, a lot of dignity, a lot of perseverance, and because of that - some really neat medical people - the fact that we're even talking about baseball is really awesome. I think before Jon picked up a ball this year it was already a successful year."

Lester was 7-2 and in the final month of his rookie season when he was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma. He went home for treatment at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and went into remission after four cycles of chemotherapy.

"I'm a competitor," said Lester. "I don't want to be down with anything. I just try to take that mentality into it. Don't feel sorry for yourself, don't sit at home and think about it. For the most part I had a pretty normal offseason. I went fishing and went hunting and did things that I like to do. I just tried to do that and keep my mind off the other stuff and tried to be as normal as I could."

The Sox brought Lester along slowly in the spring of 2007. He didn't pitch in any "regular" spring training games. He pitched on back fields against minor league hitters. When the season started, Lester was in Single A Greenville under rookie manager Gabe Kapler. He worked his way back to the Red Sox in late July. He went 4-0 with a 4.57 ERA in 12 games (11 starts). His career major league record is 11-2 and he hasn't lost in the big leagues since Aug. 8, 2006.

Lester's story twins with that of Rockies starter Aaron Cook, who had blot clots in his right shoulder that spread to his lungs in 2004.

"It's kind of ironic with him going through what he went through and me what I went through," acknowledged Cook. "Both of us had to work our way back up to the top level of professional baseball . . . I'm sure he realizes, too, without me talking to him, that baseball is not the most important thing."

It'll be an irresistible hook for Fox. Good Oprah-type stuff. But once the first pitch is thrown, it'll all be about baseball.

"It makes for a wonderful story that people want to write about, which I understand," said Francona, who believes Lester is throwing harder than at any time since coming back from his illness. "But it's about him being better than the Rockies, and I think he has a very good understanding of that."

Despite his record, Lester threw too many pitches in too many of his starts and was not included on the Division Series roster against the Angels. The Sox added him to the roster for the AL Championship Series and he was routed in relief in the 11th inning of Game 2 after Eric Gagné put a match to a tie ballgame. Lester came back with three shutout innings in Game 4 in Cleveland, allowing only an infield hit and a walk. When it became apparent Tim Wakefield (shoulder/back) wouldn't be able to pitch in the World Series, Lester got the nod for Game 4.

The Globe's Gordon Edes had an interesting conversation with Wakefield last week on the day it was announced the knuckleballer would not be on the World Series roster.

"Maybe there's a reason for it," Wakefield told Edes. "Maybe it's Jonny Lester's time to shine."

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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