Survivor story: Lester inspiration to cancer patients
After defeating form of lymphoma, left-hander has taken reins as Red Sox's ace
BOSTON -- When Jon Lester takes the mound against the Cardinals in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday (airing at 7:30 ET on FOX/8:07 first pitch) at Fenway Park, not only will he be standing up for the Red Sox, but he'll be standing up for cancer survivors and patients everywhere.
"To be honest with you, I hadn't really thought of it in that way, but I'm glad you brought it up," said Lester, who will face St. Louis right-hander Adam Wainwright.
"Yeah, if that story gets out tomorrow and that helps somebody in a hospital room or somebody who is struggling with their treatment, great. That's what we try to do in our foundation as well: Spread the word of cancer awareness. It's a big honor to take that stage with that next to my name. And like I said, hopefully I can help somebody a little bit who is struggling with it."
Consider that story out and retold.
During his rookie season of 2006, the left-hander was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma, a rare form of blood cancer. A little more than a year later, Lester was a late replacement starter for an injured Tim Wakefield in Game 4 of the World Series at Coors Field and won, pitching into the sixth inning as the Red Sox swept the Rockies. The performance substantiated his character.
Tale of the Tape: Game 1
|2013 regular season|
|Overall: 34 GS, 19-9, 2.94 ERA, 35 BB, 219 SO||Overall: 33 GS, 15-8, 3.75 ERA, 67 BB, 177 SO|
|Key stat: The Cardinals are 12-4 in postseason games Wainwright pitches in (seven starts, nine relief appearances).||Key stat: Lester's only defeat this postseason is a 1-0 loss to Anibal Sanchez in Game 1 of the ALCS.|
|At Fenway Park|
|2013: 13 GS, 7-1, 3.09 ERA
Career: 104 G, 103 GS 46-26, 3.78 ERA
|Against this opponent|
Career: 1 GS, 1-0, 2.45 ERA
|Loves to face: Stephen Drew, 2-for-19, 5 K
Hates to face: Shane Victorino, 5-for-22, HR
|Loves to face: Yadier Molina, 0-for-3
Hates to face: Carlos Beltran, 1-for-1, 2 BB
|Why he'll win: Wainwright has allowed four earned runs in 23 innings (three starts) this postseason.||Why he'll win: In 2013, Lester lost only one game at Fenway Park.|
|Pitcher beware: The Red Sox led the Majors this season in runs scored (853), slugging percentage (.446) and on-base percentage (.349), and were second in batting average (.277).||Pitcher beware: The Cardinals' bats came alive in Game 6 of the NLCS, scoring nine runs, seven of which came against Cy Young candidate Clayton Kershaw.|
|Bottom line: Wainwright has pitched like the Cardinals' ace he is this postseason, but the St. Louis offense struggled to produce his last time out, resulting in a 3-0 loss. Wainwright may not give up many runs, but he'll need some support to earn a win.||Bottom line: Lester's dominant second half has spilled over to the postseason, where he has held his opponent to two runs or fewer in each of his three starts. He'll need to keep that success going against a Cards offense that is getting its RBI leader, Allen Craig, back from an injury.|
"Jonny Lester is just the epitome of a fighter, of a bulldog," teammate Jake Peavy said. "He's our No. 1. He's a horse. He's our guy."
Lester's was an incredible journey from sudden sickness to sudden redemption.
After months of treatment and a full recovery, Lester began the 2007 regular season in the Minors to rebuild stamina and arm strength. He made 12 appearances and 11 starts, going 4-0 with a 4.57 ERA in 63 innings. Prior to the World Series, Lester made two relief appearances in the American League Championship Series against the Indians as the Red Sox rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win the pennant.
Against the Rockies, the now 29-year-old Lester allowed three hits, walked three, struck out three and left with two out in the sixth and the Red Sox leading, 1-0. They never trailed and wound up winning, 4-3. He had come full circle.
"For so many of us, it was a great experience winning the World Series," said John Farrell, who was the Red Sox's pitching coach at the time and is now serving as the club's manager. "But in Jon's case, to be on the mound in the clinching game of a World Series environment, I mean, that's the stuff that stories and movies are made of.
"There's no question he hasn't forgotten the journey he's traveled. And I think he serves as a living example to many who don't take the field, but share in a similar journey as he has."
To that end, Lester's "Never Quit" foundation has a dual purpose of supporting kids in their individual battles against cancer and raises money for research. Those funds support the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation (www.nvrqt.org). Lester is its chief spokesman and is not afraid to tell those children about his own voyage.
"As I travel the country for away games, I meet kids fighting cancer in almost every city," Lester told CNN.com this past summer. "They visit the ballpark, and I invite them onto the field so we can chat and then watch the game. I hope the little things I'm doing really make a difference to the kids in the battle today and the big fundraising events we're holding will minimize or cure pediatric cancer for the kids tomorrow."
Lester has fully recovered from cancer, having passed the magic five-year mark in 2011. His own struggle now to regain form is more mechanical than it is physical. Four consecutive seasons of 15 wins or better abruptly ended in 2012 when he slumped to 9-14 and a rare 4.82 ERA. Upon Farrell's return as manager this spring, Lester's ERA dropped more than a full run to 3.75 and his record rebounded to 15-8.
Lester has had his ebbs and flows this season, but back on the mound in the World Series, he said he's a stronger, better person than he was on Oct. 28, 2007.
"These are different circumstances, this time," Lester said. "Last time, I was kind of thrown into that position. I wasn't expected to get a start and fortunately got that opportunity. I remember the nerves. I remember the anxiety of just getting to the field and calm down a little bit. It was a different point in my career, too.
"Obviously, tomorrow there will still be nerves. That's to be expected, but I think I know a little bit more about who I am as a pitcher. I know what to expect from myself and what to expect of the crowd. We talk about every start is a learning experience. Hopefully I can go back to that one and draw something that will help me tomorrow."
No matter, not only will he be holding the hopes of Red Sox nation on his stout shoulders, but he'll toe the rubber as an example that life goes on in many ways after surviving a whirl with cancer.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.