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With ace backing, Lester Sox’ Opening Day starter

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / March 20, 2012
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - The decision on an Opening Day starter against the Detroit Tigers could have been a difficult one for Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine.

Jon Lester, who drew the assignment from Terry Francona last season, has been the team’s best starter over the last few years. But Josh Beckett had a better season in 2011.

Beckett made it an easy call for Valentine, telling him in January he thought Lester deserved the honor. After watching Lester pitch in spring training, Valentine made it official Monday.

This season, pitching in the opener might be more of a challenge than an honor. Lester will face Tigers ace Justin Verlander, the reigning American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner, April 5 at Comerica Park.

Verlander was 24-5 with a 2.40 earned run average last season. He gave up three earned runs over 15 2/3 innings in two starts against the Red Sox.

“Like I’ve always said before, I don’t pitch against him,’’ Lester said. “But at the same time, going into the game, you can’t make too many mistakes. He obviously proved that last year, and in his career, that he’s a great pitcher who doesn’t make a lot of mistakes to good teams. It’s going to be a battle. We’ll grind it out and see what happens.’’

Lester also will contend with a Tigers lineup bolstered by the addition of slugger Prince Fielder, who signed a nine-year, $214 million contract in January.

“They did a great job with improving that lineup,’’ Lester said. “It’s an impressive lineup as it was before they got Prince. The nice thing about pitching there in April is that it’s cold and it’s a big park. We’ll see how far they can hit it. It’s not going to travel too well.’’

Fielder is 1 for 3 with a walk and a strikeout against Lester, having faced him last June when the Milwaukee Brewers were at Fenway.

What meant the most to Lester was that Beckett endorsed him. Beckett has started on Opening Day five times in his career, three times with the Florida Marlins, and with the Red Sox in 2009 and ’10.

“It’s nice to hear,’’ Lester said. “Obviously we’re good friends and I know what he thinks of me as a person. But it’s nice to hear him tell other people.

“I think that’s what people don’t see from Josh. They think he’s kind of this stubborn guy that doesn’t care and I think he cares more than people think about his teammates. Saying something like that means a lot.’’

The topic came up when Valentine visited Beckett at his home in Texas Jan. 1.

“Josh explained to me about starting pitchers and their Opening Day status, or mentality,’’ Valentine said. “He thought Jon earned the job last year and didn’t do anything to lose it. It was great information. It was like, ‘Gosh, I’m glad I don’t have to now worry about this throughout spring training and all that stuff.’ Maybe I was surprised. Pleasantly surprised.’’

Valentine named Beckett the starter for the home opener against the Tampa Bay Rays April 13.

“I figured it’s an honor both ways, I think,’’ Valentine said. “Home opener and opener. So they’re both getting an honor. It’s a nice thing to plan and do. I talked to the guy [Beckett] with the most experience and he brought it up in the conversation, so it’s obviously a topic.’’

Lester was 15-9 with a 3.47 ERA last season. He gave up five runs on six hits in 5 1/3 innings against Texas on Opening Day last season but was not involved in the decision in a game the Red Sox lost, 9-5.

The Sox were swept in Texas, giving up 26 runs in three games.

“I didn’t pitch well and we ran into a hot team. That series was ridiculous. They hit everything and hit it well,’’ Lester said. “To add on top of that, I didn’t pitch well. It just made it worse.’’

Lester will draw on his experiences from that game to try to help him this time around.

“You don’t know what to expect until you do it and then when you do it, it’s kind of like just a regular game,’’ he said. “There’s a lot of hoopla that goes into the pregame stuff, which is awesome to be a part of. To stand on the side and watch it all is great. When you’re actually warming up, it’s tough to enjoy. You have to focus on being in the game.

“That’s the biggest thing, the experience of going through it. You learn something new every time you take the ball, every situation. I’ll take what I learned last year, whether good or bad, and try to apply it in a couple of weeks. My nerves will be more calm. The more times you do it, the more you’re able to control your emotions.’’

Despite his six seasons in the American League, Lester has faced the Tigers only three times in his career, going 0-2 with a 5.89 ERA. He has pitched once at Comerica Park, giving up four runs over seven innings in 2010. Lester last faced the Tigers July 30, 2010, at Fenway Park.

“It’s nice to know you’re the first one out of the gate,’’ Lester said. “It’s always exciting. It’s nice to get the first one out of the way as soon as possible so you can build off of that. Like I said, the biggest thing is that I’m honored and excited.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.

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