BOSTON -- On the eve of his start in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, Jon Lester insisted that there is no added pressure to lead his pitching staff, nor does he see the need to rally his Red Sox in a deadlocked series.
It is not surprising that the left-hander, wielding experiences ranging far beyond his 24 years, would have a refreshingly different perspective than most. As Lester takes the ball on Monday opposite the Rays' Matt Garza, he said that the formula of execution and keeping the ball down would be enough to create the potential for great results.
"I still have to go out and pitch," Lester said on Sunday, as the Red Sox went through the paces of an optional workout at Fenway Park. "I think that just the postseason in itself adds a little bit of pressure to it.
"I don't really see the sense of urgency right now. We're at home, and we've got three against them here. Hopefully we can put up a good fight these next couple games and pick up a couple of wins, and we'll see where we're at after [Game 3]."
The postseason setting has agreed with Lester, who has made three career starts dating back to Game 4 of the World Series and not allowed an earned run over 19 2/3 innings. He said that some of the young players in Boston's clubhouse may even be getting spoiled by the atmosphere, being back in the ALCS for a second successive year.
"It's almost like we expect it, and this is all we know," Lester said. "You can't really describe the atmosphere of the ballpark when you go play, and every pitch matters.
Lester vs. Rays in 2008
"Usually during the regular season, if you're the starting pitcher, you're kind of walking back and forth from the clubhouse to the dugout and not really paying attention to what's going on. And this time of year, every pitch, every at bat, every out, it matters so much more to trying to get to that next stage."
Some of the success Lester has enjoyed this season came against the Rays, by now a familiar foe. He faced the Rays three times in 2008, all at Fenway Park and all Red Sox wins, and was sharp in every one. Lester is 4-0 with a 3.38 ERA in seven lifetime starts against Tampa Bay.
Lester acknowledged the Rays' status as a good offensive club and compared them to the Angels club he defeated in Game 1 and took a no-decision against in the clinching Game 4 of the AL Division Series, in that both lineups are able to pile on and continue momentum.
"If you can kind of stay away from the big innings where they get big hits after big hits, and they start running all over the place, then you can kind of control the tempo," Lester said. "But you know, that's tough to do with this team.
"They're a very energy-based team. If they start getting the feel that they can attack you, then they're going to start going up there with more confidence. If you can keep them off balance and keep them away from those big innings, I think you have a chance of really shutting them down."
Lester's tale has been well-chronicled. A promising second-round Draft pick in 2002, Lester was diagnosed with lymphoma late in the '06 season and fought long odds to return to the big leagues, enjoying an inspiring moment of success this May in pitching a no-hitter over the Royals.
These days, Lester's winter 2006 chemotherapy treatments at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle are but a footnote in his complete story. Whereas Lester was lauded upon his comeback as a cancer survivor, now he is earning platitudes as the top pitcher on the Red Sox's staff.
Lester has thrown 14 innings without allowing an earned run in the playoffs this year, the most by a Sox hurler since Pedro Martinez fired 17 scoreless innings in the 1999 postseason. He came in with September strength, earning honors as the AL's Pitcher of the Month after going 4-1 with a 2.27 ERA in five starts.
"Jon, I think, has become our ace on this team," Red Sox infielder Kevin Youkilis said. "He's been the guy that's pitched unbelievably well all year. He's pitching unbelievable right now."
Part of the reason may be having enjoyed a season closer to what could be expected. He was able to go through a relatively normal offseason and adopt a regular routine for a starting pitcher, building up to full strength and keeping up with the programs assigned to the rest of Boston's hurlers.
Lester said that he was "happy in the end" that the Red Sox proceeded cautiously with him out of the gate last season, saying that he would have gotten hurt if he'd had no restrictions in 2007. But as Francona reflected on Sunday, Lester was not always quite so understanding.
"I know we did a lot of homework on what he was going through and what to expect physically, or what was fair to expect, or how we should go about this," Francona said. "And we did really make him go slow.
"I made a call to his folks in Spring Training, and I told them, 'We're really going to [tick] off your son,' and they laughed. They said, 'You know, we understand why.' We're going to go slow with him, and we did. And it was very frustrating to him."
Reflecting now, Francona believes that the Red Sox handled Lester's situation correctly, especially when the manager contrasts the pitcher who will take the ball on Monday against the one who first came back from the diagnosis.
"He's farther away from being sick, he's getting bigger and stronger," Francona said. "If you look at video of him just like from the back, he doesn't even look like the same kid anymore. His confidence has grown. He's got a delivery that's built for endurance. He's turned into a phenomenal Major League pitcher, on top of being a phenomenal kid."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.