At spring training, every day brings another step forward for Major League teams as they prepare for the coming seasons. In these early days the movement is measured in baby steps.
That’s why it’s important not to get too excited over Jon Lester’s two perfect innings against the Cardinals on Sunday.
Pitchers are supposed to be ahead of hitters at this point in camp, and Lester is supposed to be the best pitcher on the Boston staff.
His standing in that rotation has come into serious doubt over the past year and a half. That’s why two somewhat meaningless innings might actually be more important than we think.
Without question, Lester is the closest thing the Red Sox have to an ace heading into the season. Now, more than ever, he is the leader of the pitching staff.
Until September of 2011 he pitched like a top-of-the-rotation performer, yet was always in the shadow of Josh Beckett when it came to his standing in the clubhouse.
For better or worse, Beckett set the tone for Red Sox starters. He worked hard, played hard, and tried to intimidate opponents and media with a little sneer and a lot of defiance.
That snarl is gone, packed up and shipped west last August. Now it’s Lester’s time to lead.
Two years ago we had no question that Lester would someday be the ace of the Boston rotation.
In 2010 he went 19-9 with a 3.25 and finished fourth in the American League Cy Young voting.
Nothing changed through the first five months of 2011. At that point Lester was 14-6 with a 3.09 ERA. The Sox had won 15 of his 25 starts.
Then came the September collapse. Lester went 1-3 with a 5.40 ERA, the Sox lost five of his six starts, and fans were talking about chicken and beer more than they were talking about strikeouts and walks.
Lester is only 29 years old, and should be entering the prime of his career.
One would expect the projections to be off the charts for a pitcher with a career .639 winning percentage.
Yet Bill James, the statistics guru used as a consultant by the Red Sox, projects Lester to be a .500 pitcher in 2013.
This will be a very long season for Boston fans if Lester does indeed go 12-12 as James predicts.
Yet, like the rest of the Sox, Lester’s upside is much higher than critics contend.
For the past two weeks the lefty has talked about rediscovering the downward plane he used to strike out hitters in the past.
When he missed his location last year, he left the ball up, and that often led to runs on the board for the other team.
Reunited with John Farrell, Lester has been working on keeping pitches down since he arrived in camp.
Juan Nieves, the team’s new pitching coach, has worked hard in camp to teach Lester to use every throw – from the first bullpen session to the final Grapefruit League game – as a learning moment, as he rediscovers the form that once made him a dominant pitcher.
That work paid off on Sunday. It’s a long way back to games that do actually count, but Lester is on track to be the team’s opening day starter for the third straight year.
That April 1 game in Yankee Stadium will give us an early indication of just where Lester is.
And that might be the most important indicator of all for these 2013 Red Sox.
Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.