Jon Lester’s triumphant return to the mound at Fenway Park has been nearly a year in the making.
The 23-year-old left-hander takes the field in Boston for the first time since beating cancer as the Red Sox continue their three-game series with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on Tuesday night.
Lester (1-0, 6.43 ERA) underwent chemotherapy after being diagnosed with lymphoma last August. He returned to the majors on July 23, but has not pitched in Fenway since Aug 18, when he allowed seven runs in 3 2-3 innings without getting a decision in Boston’s 14-11 loss to the rival New York Yankees.
“With any start, you don’t want to get too amped up. I have enough trouble getting the ball over the plate already,” Lester said of his impending return to Boston. “It probably won’t sink in until … I see the Fenway background.”
After earning a 6-2 win in Cleveland in his first start back, Lester has allowed at least four runs in each of his last three and failed to earn a decision in each. He gave up five runs and eight hits with three walks in a career-low 3 1-3 innings during Boston’s 9-6 win over the Los Angeles Angels on Wednesday.
“He’s still a young pitcher, and you try never to forget that,” Boston manager Terry Francona said. “He’s a work in progress, and his development got interrupted. The good thing is, he’s a real hard worker, a good listener and gives you good feedback.”
Lester made his only career start against Tampa Bay on July 28, and allowed four runs and six hits in 6 2-3 innings of the Red Sox’s 12-6 win in 12.
He’ll be trying to build on Tim Wakefield’s outstanding start Monday. The knuckleballer took a no-hitter into the seventh inning and allowed just two hits over eight innings of a 3-0 win.
The shutout was Boston’s 10th this season to tie Seattle for most in the AL. It also was the third win in seven games for the Red Sox (71-47), who own the majors’ best record and remained four games ahead of the second-place Yankees in the AL East.
“I think it was very important for us to get back at home and get some momentum going our way,” said Wakefield, whose team was coming off a 4-5 road trip. “I’m just grateful that it’s happening.”
The win was Boston’s sixth in seven games against Tampa Bay (45-73) this season, and 38th in the last 46 meetings at Fenway.
Carl Crawford had one of Tampa Bay’s hits on Monday and is batting .500 (29-for-58) over his last 14 games.
The Devil Rays will have their ace on the mound. Scott Kazmir (9-7, 3.58 ERA) has made more starts against the Red Sox than any other team, going 5-3 with a 2.55 ERA in 13 career appearances against them.
Kazmir also has held Boston’s biggest bats in check, limiting Manny Ramirez to a .118 average (4-for-34) and David Ortiz to a .156 mark (5-for-32). Ramirez and Ortiz have each homered once off the left-hander, but also have combined to strike out 20 times.
“You’ve got to change it up against those guys,” Kazmir, 0-1 in two starts against the Red Sox this season despite a 2.25 ERA, told the Devil Rays’ official Web site. “You’ve got to see what pattern you’re throwing. Try to mix it up a little bit. Those guys are unbelievable hitters, so you know they’re going to get theirs.”
Kazmir threw six scoreless innings in Thursday’s 8-1 win in Detroit, improving to 4-1 with a 1.16 ERA over his last six starts. He also struck out seven batters, moving to within 14 strikeouts of the single-season team record of 174 he set in 2005.