THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Officially, Lester the 1

Francona puts the ball in his hand for opener

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / March 17, 2011

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — From the first day of spring training, reporters started grilling Terry Francona about the identity of his Opening Day starter. While we all knew the answer, the question had to be asked, and until yesterday, the Red Sox manager kept saying he wasn’t quite ready for a public response.

As it turns out, Jon Lester knew the answer sometime over the winter, when Francona asked him, “Do you want to do this?’’ To which Lester responded in the affirmative.

“Obviously, it’s a big honor,’’ said Lester, who went 4 2/3 innings (79 pitches) against the Braves yesterday, giving up eight hits and three runs in a 4-3 loss. “Growing up, it’s what you want to be. Like I said in the past, Opening Day is nice, but the playoffs are more important.’’

The offer to Lester was even less formal than Francona made it sound. Lester said it was a text that read, “How would you feel about starting Opening Day?’’

“I wrote back, ‘Sure,’ ’’ said Lester. “It was short and sweet, and I think I was at a deer stand when he texted.’’

Lester, who feels he needs one more start to get ready for the season, said he was pleased at limiting the damage yesterday: one run in the first and two in the fifth.

“It was nice to pitch in jams,’’ he said. “You never want to, but you have to practice working out of jams and minimize the damage.’’

It is that ability to minimize damage that makes Lester the best pitcher on the staff.

There’s no argument from anyone on that statement, yet the lefthander said Francona could have picked any of the other four starters for Opening Day.

“Didn’t everyone know Jon would be the Opening Day starter?’’ Dustin Pedroia asked. “I remember when we were down in the minors together before the cancer. He could throw 98 miles per hour with a great curveball. It was amazing to watch then and amazing to watch him now, given what he’s been through.’’

Lester, 27, doesn’t feel he’s a finished product. He practiced his pickoff move in a mirror this offseason, wanting badly to improve that area of his game. There were 22 steals off him last season, and he wants to be better.

“It’s a struggle,’’ he said. “Something I worked on in the past and thought I had a grasp on it. [Pitching coach] Curt [Young] has taken a big interest in it. I’m still feeling it out. Not 100 percent comfortable with what I’m trying to do.’’

When asked if he’d like to be Andy Pettitte good, Lester said, “Pettitte is a freak. You can’t emulate what he does. Bits and pieces you can take, but he’s just a freak. He’s got it down and I’m sure it took many years for him to get it.’’

Some who watched Pettitte early in his career say Lester is better. That is high praise. But the numbers are there. Lester has a .709 career winning percentage. He won 19 games a year ago. He won 15 the year before and 16 the year before that.

If you need to pitch a big game, Lester is the guy. There is no real debate about who should be on the mound when the 2011 season begins.

“He’s our superstar,’’ said David Ortiz. “I’m just glad I don’t have to face him. I see the faces of the hitters on the other teams when they have to face Lester, and they’d rather take a day off than step in there because they know he’s going to be nasty.

“He’s a big weapon for us. He can shut you down. When he’s pitching, everybody around him knows we can win. That’s what a No. 1 starter is supposed to do. We have so much confidence in him.’’

Since pitching became important in Boston, we’ve seen some very good, if not great, No. 1 starters.

There was Jim Lonborg and Luis Tiant. There was Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, and, for a while, Josh Beckett. They were all dominant in their own way.

Bill Lee, Bruce Hurst, and Frank Viola all had good seasons for the Red Sox, but since Mel Parnell, the most accomplished lefty has been Lester. He has already pitched a no-hitter. He’s already won a clinching game of a World Series.

It is not unreasonable to expect a Cy Young Award sometime.

“I would hope so,’’ Francona said. “None of us can foresee the future, and that’s not something I would say, but I hope so.’’

Pedroia said Lester “has all the tools to do it, but winning a Cy Young sometimes involves some luck.’’

“Oh yeah,’’ said Ortiz. “He’ll win more than one. He’s got a long way to go. He gets better every year.’’

Lester, who will oppose Rangers lefthander C.J. Wilson in the April 1 opener at Arlington, Texas, was chosen by Francona because, said the manager, “I think he has that stature in the game now where other teams view him as No. 1. He’s an elite pitcher. Our most consistent pitcher. It’s a big honor.’’

Beckett, the Opening Day starter in 2009 and 2010, said Lester deserved the honor.

“Not just for what he did last year, but for what he has been doing right along,’’ Beckett said. “Three days into spring training, when people starting asking me about Opening Day, I said that Jon had done nothing not to deserve it. It’s a really big honor and he should be proud of it. It’s something he has earned.’’

Francona wasn’t surprised by Beckett’s endorsement.

“They’re all together and very supportive of one another,’’ he said. “I wouldn’t expect anything less.’’

The rest of the baseball world now knows what Lester knew months ago. He’s the Opening Day starter for the Boston Red Sox, and with that comes the tag of No. 1 — not exactly a big secret, either.

Peter Abraham of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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