Lester ready to win rotation spot

Updated: February 13, 2007, 6:02 PM ET
Associated Press

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- His cancer is gone and his curve is back.

Jon Lester feels ready to win a spot on Boston's pitching staff less than six months after being diagnosed with a disease that threatened, at the very least, a promising career. Now he must convince manager Terry Francona and Boston's other decision-makers who have preached caution.

"I think it's because they haven't seen me," Lester said.

When they do, they may be shocked.

"I surprise people," he said. "They're expecting to see the cancer patient here instead of me, and it's just good to get that feeling that I've prepared well and came in in shape."

Lester's weight, down to 190 during chemotherapy, is up to 212, about five pounds less than his normal playing size. His left arm is powerful and his legs are gaining strength. So what if his hair isn't growing back quickly?

"I got tired of waking up and having clumps on my pillow so we buzzed it," Lester said. "I had the Chia Pet look going for a while."

When Jonathan Papelbon saw him for the first time Monday at spring training, he was stunned at how good Lester looked.

"I almost didn't recognize him because I didn't expect him to look that good," Papelbon said. "I expected to walk in and see more of a frail-type person.

"It's just amazing, man," Papelbon said.

Lester's whole saga has been. As a rookie last year, he became the first Red Sox left-hander to win his first five decisions. He was 7-2 with a 4.76 ERA. But in late August, he was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma, a type of cancer in the body's lymph system.

His future, so bright a few weeks earlier, was suddenly very cloudy.

"Obviously, there's that denial," he said last September in his first public remarks after being diagnosed. "Why me? But right now there's no time for that."

He had his first round of chemotherapy at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. The other five were in his home state of Washington at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, named for a major-league pitcher and manager who died of lung cancer at age 45.

A CT scan taken before the fifth round showed no cancer, he began throwing Dec. 4 and the sixth and final treatment took place Dec. 21. Then his doctor told him, "Go get 'em."

About three weeks later, after turning 23 on Jan. 7, Lester visited his friend Chad Spann, a third baseman in the Red Sox system, at Spann's home in Georgia. They hunted duck and quail, and Lester figures his group killed about 85 over four or five days.

"It had been a while" since they hunted, Spann said. "Just like baseball, it takes a while to get back in your comfort zone so he and I did better as the days went on."

Lester's last checkup was in Washington in late January. He came to Fort Myers early in February, more than two weeks before the first official workout on Sunday.

"I'm throwing a bullpen [session] Sunday with everybody else," he said.

The Red Sox already have a formidable rotation -- Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matuszaka, Tim Wakefield and Papelbon. Lester understands the team doesn't have to rush him. He mentioned that his first three-month checkup could take place in Pawtucket where Boston's Triple-A affiliate is located.

He'll have four such checkups in his first year. If there is no recurrence through five years, he will be considered cured, Lester said.

For now, there are still moments of worry.

"When you're laying in bed at night, when you're not doing anything, you think about it a little bit," he said. "As long as I keep busy, I'm all right. Every now and again I feel something and go, 'OK, what was that?' but I try not to think about it too much."

Francona has said Lester had "a traumatic winter," one reason the team might hold him back.

"I can tell them 'til I'm blue in the face that I'm ready but the medical staff and Tito [Francona] and the coaching staff, they have my better interests," Lester said. "I have to listen to what they say."

So if he has to start in the minors, he'll accept it.

"I'm not as hard on myself as I was last year," he said. "It's just a matter of enjoying playing baseball and not necessarily the result. So [I'm] just trying to enjoy things and take it day by day and live my life the best I can."


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press