BOSTON --- This is Jon Lester unleashed: unhittable in May, a stopper in October, the emerging ace of the Boston Red Sox.
The 24-year-old lefty will start Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against Tampa Bay today, facing Matt Garza at Fenway Park under the championship banner Lester helped raise with a World Series-clinching victory just months after he was cured of cancer.
"We're one of four teams left right now. You're playing for the ultimate prize. You're playing for another ring, a chance to be world champions again," Lester said Sunday before Boston's off-day workout. "I think a lot of the young guys that were here last year get spoiled. We're doing it again. It's almost like we expect it, and this is all we know."
All Lester, a former Augusta GreenJacket, has known lately is success -- especially at Fenway.
He went 11-1 at home this season, including a May 19 no-hitter against Kansas City. He has not allowed an earned run in his past 22w postseason innings, including the Game 4 victory in the World Series as the Red Sox swept Colorado to win their second title in four seasons.
"He's pitching unbelievable right now, and I think he's become our ace," said Kevin Youkilis, also a former GreenJacket. "Coming here at home he always pitches pretty well, so we've just got to have him pitch a good game and jump on Garza as soon as we can."
The Red Sox took the opener of the best-of-seven series in Florida, but the Rays tied it Saturday night when B.J. Upton lofted a bases-loaded sacrifice fly to shallow right field in the 11th inning to give Tampa Bay a 9-8 victory. Josh Beckett, dominant in Boston's '07 title run, allowed eight runs in 4q innings, taxing the bullpen and leaving the Red Sox in need of a Game 3 rescue from Lester.
The teams combined for seven home runs, tying a postseason record. The Rays wound up winning a game that lasted 5 hours, 27 minutes when speedy pinch runner Fernando Perez beat right fielder J.D. Drew's throw home.
A touted prospect who was routinely requested in trade talks, Lester was developing into a star when he was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma, a rare cancer of the lymph nodes, as a rookie in 2006. He was pronounced cancer-free after chemotherapy in December and cleared to return to the mound in the spring of '07.
Although there's little precedent for a pitcher recovering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Boston did what research they could on how to get him back to full strength. Their conclusion: take it slow.
Last winter, Lester had a normal off-season and came to spring training ready to take on a normal workload. He went 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA this year, with a 2.49 ERA at home and a 4.09 mark and 5-5 record on the road.
"He's farther away from being sick, he's getting bigger and stronger," Francona said. "He's turned into a phenomenal major league pitcher on top of being a phenomenal kid."