Lester to start on Opening Day for Red Sox

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine announced today that Jon Lester would start on Opening Day against Detroit on April 5.

Lester will face defending American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander in the 1:05 p.m. game.

“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.”

Josh Beckett will start the home opener against the Rays on April 13.

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Lester was 15-9 with a 3.47 earned run average last season. This will be his second consecutive Opening Day start. He allowed five runs on six hits in 5.1 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 No. 1 determinant was the conversation I had with Josh where Josh explained to me about starting pitchers and their Opening Day status or mentality or whatever and he thought Jon earned the job last year and didn’t do anything to lose it,” Valentine said.

“So I said, ‘You have a lot more knowledge of Opening Day starters and their mentality than I.’ I saw the health of both of them and I figured it’s an honor both ways, I think. Home opener and opener. So they’re both getting an honor.”

That conversation came on Jan. 1 when Valentine visited Beckett in Texas.

“His work ethic and that he has had no setbacks at all in everything that he has been trying to do,” said Valentine when asked when has impressed him about Lester.

Lester is 0-2, 5.89 in three starts against the Tigers in his career and has pitched just once at Comerica Park, giving up four runs over seven innings in 2010.

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Lester last faced the Tigers on July 30, 2010, at Fenway Park.

Tigers slugger Prince Fielder, who was signed to a nine-year, $214 million deal on Jan. 25, is 1 for 3 against Lester with a strikeout and a walk. They faced each other last June 18 when Fielder was with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Lester is eager to face Verlander and the Tigers.

“I don’t pitch against him. 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,” the lefty said. “It’s going to be a battle, we’ll grind it out and see what happens.

“They did a great job with improving that lineup. 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.”

Valentine understands that for the starters, the Opening Day assignment is a big deal.

“It’s a nice thing to plan and do,” the manager said “I talked to the guy [Beckett] with the most experience and he brought it up in the conversation, so it’s obviously a topic.”

That Beckett backed Lester for the assignment made it easy for Valentine to decide.

“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 said.

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Said Lester: “It means a lot. It’s nice to hear. 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 hard ass stubborn guy that doesn’t care and I think he cares more than people think about his teammates and saying something like that means a lot.”

Lester said the experience of pitching on Opening Day in 2011 should help him this time around.

“Just the experience of it. 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 pre-game 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.”

With 17 days remaining until the season starts, the Red Sox have Lester, Beckett and Clay Buchholz lined up as their top three starters. The other two rotation spots are in flux.

Daniel Bard is the favorite for one spot with a number of pitchers — Alfredo Aceves, Felix Doubront, Vicente Padilla and Aaron Cook — competing for the other.