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Lester might become ace by default

Lester might become ace by default

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Josh Beckett has muscle spasms in his lower back and could be out for weeks. Curt Schilling has a partially torn right rotator cuff and damage to his biceps tendon and won't be back for months. Daisuke Matsuzaka has a baby on the way and fatherhood in his sights.

All of which means that Jon Lester could just be the man for Opening Day -- whether he's ready to admit it or not.

"I don't look at it that way," Lester said. "You don't look at a different role or a different spot or anything like that. You just get the opportunity to get the ball and go pitch. That's all you can really do."

Schilling won't be ready for the team's first game against the A's on March 25 -- that much is certain. Beckett might not be either, and Red Sox manager Terry Francona has stressed that he won't rush his ace back to health. So if Matsuzaka's new baby interferes with the team's trip to Japan -- his wife is due on March 19, the same day the Sox are set to fly overseas -- then Lester might become the ace by default.

Many dominoes must fall before that speculation can become a reality, but it's an issue nonetheless. Francona knows that just as well as anyone.

"We're kind of in limbo on a lot of things," Francona said. "When those games come, we'll show up and play. I'm just not sure who we'll play with, yet."

Consider Lester among the strongest of candidates. His third Grapefruit League start on Monday was by far his most impressive, even with what he considered a "bad" curveball. Facing a Mets lineup that was nearly at full strength for the first time this spring, Lester allowed only two hits and no runs, striking out five.

"Every start is taking a step in the right direction," Lester said. "I'll just look to keep building off this and hopefully carry this over into my next start."

Whether that momentum eventually carries him to Opening Day, or instead to his more familiar spot at the back of the rotation, doesn't seem to matter.

For Lester, that's what's so satisfying about this upcoming summer -- he doesn't have to consider anything other than what happens on the mound. There's no more cancer to worry about, no more struggle to climb back to health. Instead, this season will be about pitching alone -- whether that's in Japan, Boston or anywhere else.

"Once you get on the field, you've got to win," Francona said. "I think for a young kid, he grasped that really well. He's a pretty special kid."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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