Jon Lester and Ricky Nolasco have followed strangely similar career paths, with both enjoying breakout seasons last year before struggling through difficult starts in 2009.
Their latest twists could make for an intriguing pitchers' duel at Fenway Park on Thursday.Lester will be hoping to extend a dominant run as his Boston Red Sox try to complete a three-game sweep of the Florida Marlins, but Nolasco has also shown positive signs in his last two starts.After being diagnosed with lymphoma in 2006, baseball was a secondary concern for Lester in 2007, when elbow problems derailed Nolasco for that season. But both fully regained their strength last year, when Lester's 16 wins included a no-hitter and Nolasco's 15 victories led the Marlins.This year, Lester (5-5, 4.76 ERA) was 3-5 with a 6.07 ERA in his first 10 outings, But Nolasco -- Florida's opening day starter -- found himself in the minor leagues last month after racking up a 9.07 ERA in his first nine starts.Both pitchers seem to have regained their swagger -- especially Lester, who has struck out at least 11 in each of his last three starts, going 2-0 with a 1.23 ERA and .099 opponent batting average over that span."Comfortable," Lester said. "Confident."After flirting with a perfect game June 6 against Texas, the left-hander allowed one run and two hits and in seven innings at Philadelphia on Friday, although he did not get the win in Boston's 5-2, 13-inning victory.Nolasco's resurgence hasn't been quite as dramatic, but the right-hander has put together back-to-back quality starts since returning from Triple-A New Orleans.He allowed two runs and five hits while striking out nine in six innings of Florida's 7-3 win over Toronto on Friday, although Nolasco (2-6, 7.62) did not earn the victory and still hasn't won since May 8."I just kind of want to get better every time out," Nolasco said. "Just being consistent is the main goal."The task could be tougher for Nolasco, who will be pitching at Fenway for the first time. He's also never faced the Red Sox, who are a major league-best 23-8 at home.Boston has won 12 of its last 15 overall and five in a row at Fenway, which sold out for the 500th consecutive time Wednesday when the AL-leading Red Sox (40-25) beat Florida 6-1.While Kevin Youkilis went 0 for 4 and is now 2 for 20 with 11 strikeouts in his last five games, David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia seem to be emerging from their slumps.Ortiz doubled, walked twice and scored three runs Wednesday, and has a .545 on-base percentage in his last 10 games as he fights through a season-long funk."He's the same David Ortiz," Marlins left-hander Andrew Miller said. "Any slump he gets into, he's going to get out of it."Pedroia was 2 for his last 29 coming into the series, but is 5 for 10 in the last two games, adding three RBIs in the most recent victory.Florida, meanwhile, has totaled three runs in the first two games of this series after scoring 23 in a three-game sweep at Toronto over the weekend. Hanley Ramirez, a former Red Sox prospect, is 1 for 7 without an RBI.The Marlins (32-35) haven't been swept in an AL park since losing three straight at Tampa Bay from May 19-21, 2006.