The first brush strokes of any significance came Sunday afternoon in sweltering Roger Dean Stadium. If Lester wasn't in midseason form -- and how could he be? -- at least the temperature was. He threw 24 pitches to six Cardinals batters, retiring all, including the three in the second inning on merely six pitches. As if any of that numerology means anything in February. The outcome of the Sox's first Spring Training game -- they won, 5-3 -- wasn't of much import either.
To a pitcher as accomplished as Lester, February usually is about getting back on the bump and doing what he's been doing for most of his adult life. A change of calendar and little else. This February is different because last July was different; also uncomfortable, grotesque and, he hopes, forgettable in every way.
So there he was Sunday, after a winter of "digging through the bad to find the positives." After a poor Mets season under his guidance, Joe Torre once likened that chore to picking through bologna skins, ketchup-stained napkins and yokey egg shells to find the inadvertently discarded $5 bill.
"Five dollars is always useful," Torre said, decades before he earned his first five million.
Consider Lester's first attempts at command of his fastball to be worthy of one Lincoln. Manager John Farrell noted how the second-inning strikes found the bottom of the zone, a truly Lester-like attribute. The manager also spoke of his pitcher's change of pace. Lester said he threw just one; must have been one of a Bugs Bunny quality.
Crawling from the wreckage is a new exercise for Lester. His career winning percentage before the stain of 2012 was .691: Cooperstown-esque. His number last season was 300 points lower. It had a certain Pawtucket feel to it. But the equivalent of five splendid seasons had preceded it.
Lester admits to having beaten his head against a wall -- a figure of speech no doubt -- and chanting "What's wrong? What's wrong." The question wasn't at all rhetorical.
Mechanical flaws undermined him last season as much as the general tenor of the Sox. Repair isn't as easy as it seems in midseason.
"When things start to go wrong, you're not sure what to do," Lester said. "Maybe you're trying to change, but then you revert to what got you in trouble in the first place."
And just because he stopped doing something wrong didn't mean he began doing everything right. Mechanics are not a constant.
His sense of the symptoms were that his cutter flattened and his curve became loopy. And those were just the physical manifestations of what occurred. Now he is "trying to get back to being me."
He suspects he may have benefited from the poor pitching in a way, but says "I don't know if [stinking] sets you up for a great season. But if it does, great. I don't want to go through that again."
He'll find out soon enough.