These are the moments that transcend.
For one night at least, Red Sox fans won’t freak out if their starting pitcher gets hammered. It won’t matter a bit if the new kid pulls a stinker against the Indians, if his strikeouts are down, or if it takes him upward of 100 pitches to get through five innings.
In professional sports there are very few evenings that cater to the familiar refrain, "It’s not whether you win or lose..."
This is one of them.
When Jon Lester throws his first pitch in the bottom of the first inning tonight in Cleveland, he will have already won a battle that took nearly a year to accomplish, one much more challenging than anything Grady Sizemore plans to present to him.
The cancer is gone and Lester is ready to pitch in the big leagues for just the 16th time in his brief, interrupted career.
Tonight, it simply won’t matter what he delivers. The story will be that he’s back and ready to contribute in a pennant chase, the latter of which will take focus after his 2007 debut.
And it will be a glorious moment for Lester, his family, and the millions of Red Sox fans who followed his road to recovery. But where it goes from there is really anyone’s guess.
There are a number of theories as to why Lester, why now:
Lester is a great story, but the jury is still out as to whether he can be a great Major League pitcher. After an inconsistent 2006 -- during which he showed some flashes of his potential (no more so than in an eight-inning, one-hitter against the Royals last July) -- Lester has been on a similar path at Pawtucket in 2007. He was 4-5 with a 3.89 ERA at the Triple-A level, but since June 20 he has a 5.98 ERA, and has, perhaps more alarmingly, walked 19 batters in 33 1/3 innings over that period, suggesting that he perhaps has yet to improve on a problem that plagued his rookie season in Boston.
In fact, of the two lefties in the Sox rotation, it is Gabbard who has looked more consistent over the past two seasons (5-3, 3.19 ERA) over Lester (7-2, 4.76). Lester comes with the higher pedigree, but Gabbard has been more successful so far.
And could it possibly be that Lester’s promotion -- well-timed indeed on July 23, conveniently giving him two starts prior to next Tuesday’s trading deadline -- might be in order to determine which will bring more trade value?
If Gabbard, for instance, can’t net you the likes of Eric Byrnes or Mark Teixeira, might Lester? There are eight days to find out.
You can understand the front office’s reluctance to trade such a player, but in the end baseball is much like any other enterprise. It is a business, and in business cruel decisions are made. Perhaps the cruelest of all is that Lester’s next two starts will be on the road, meaning there is a chance Fenway may never be able to give him the greeting it had so hoped for.
Or maybe the Red Sox just think Lester is ready to take a spot in the rotation. But the certainty of the situation is that someone still needs to go, whether that is via trade or demotion. Schilling is coming back, and no matter what he does down the stretch will join Tim Wakefield, Josh Beckett, and Daisuke Matsuzaka, who with a combined 35 wins, form a dominant 1-2-3. That leaves one spot for two young lefties, both of whom have shown they can pitch in the big leagues.
You hate to deal big-league pitching, but the not-so-new-any-longer regime has proven it plays for this thing year-to-year in a Moneyball sort of way. In 2004, Epstein made the unthinkable trade of Nomar Garciaparra because the team badly needed some defense. They only went on to win the World Series. In 2007, it could be more bench folks on the way, with Wily Mo Pena, Eric Hinske, and Doug Mirabelli providing little-to-no pop in late-inning, pressure situations. Epstein would make another unthinkable trade for sure if he thought it meant improving the team into a World Series possibility.
All that will be answered in a matter of days. Schilling will make another rehab start Thursday in Toledo, and by then maybe we’ll understand more about his return. Gabbard will follow back-to-back nifty outings the same evening in Cleveland, and then might get the news he’s getting bumped. The irony is, Schilling’s return means a spot no longer for Lester or Gabbard, one of whom might bump Schilling from $13 million in 2008.
The answers will come for Jon Lester, too, but tonight matters for one reason only. He’s back, healthy, and pitching in the big leagues.
That moment alone should transcend anything else that happens. What follows, from a purely business standpoint, is anyone’s guess.