At about this time 4 years ago, Jon Lester was virtually unknown to Red Sox Nation when he was called up – probably too soon – to fill a starting pitcher’s role due to a rash of injuries. He pitched admirably, and finished the season with a 7-2 record before being diagnosed with anaplastic large-cell lymphoma, a treatable form of cancer that, without proper treatment can become very lethal. A year later he made his return, and only months later got the W in the decisive game of the Red Sox’ second World Series title in 4 seasons. Six months after that, he became the first Sox southpaw to throw a no-hitter in 50 years. He has since been a staple at the front of Boston’s rotation, his sweeping curve and diving splitter becoming the thing that keeps hitters up at night.
Lester’s 2008 no-no was preceded by a no-hitter thrown by Clay Buchholz against the Orioles in September, 2007. It was the one and only real highlight of Buchholz’ Major League career in the decade, as losing battles with nagging injuries, confidence and a just-plain glut of starting talent sent Buch on a roller coaster between Portland, Pawtucket and the rare stint in the Fens in the 2008 and 2009 seasons. At the end of 2009, he came back to Boston and pitched admirably in August and September, earning himself a starting role with the team in 2010.
In the same 2007 season that Lester was battling his cancer and Buchholz was battling his role in the Red Sox organization, a sparkplug of a second baseman with an attitude much bigger than his 5-8 frame was battling critics of his own sub-Mendoza batting average and defensive struggles that led him to be platooned with then-Red Sox Alex Cora. By the end of that season, the kid with the 4-inch strike zone was Rookie of the Year; the next year he was MVP. While Pedroia was streaking to notoriety throughout the American League, fellow rookie Jacoby Ellsbury was battling his way into a big-league role as he moved from Lowell to Wilmington to Portland to Pawtucket and finally, after a Coco Crisp injury sidelined the starting centerfielder, to Boston. It took little time for him to win over the Fenway Faithful – the ladies in particular – and to be assigned the starting role in centerfield when the AL playoffs rolled around. In the Sox’ World Series sweep of the Rockies, Tacoby Bellsbury hit .438.
2007 wasn’t kind for all Red Sox prospects, though. One Daniel Bard was drafted as a starting pitcher, but flamed out in the role quickly and was moved to the bullpen. He was short to acclimate to his new role, and at the end of 2008, was awarded the Red Sox’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year award, following in the footsteps of Buchholz and Lester before him.
Baseball isn’t like a lot of sports. The top draft pool talent (all of the above were drafted in the fourth round or higher, though none of them went higher than 23rd overall) – still isn’t nearly good enough to compete immediately on the big stage (what Strasburg is doing right now notwithstanding), and it takes work, patience and usually an awful lot of money to develop that talent. They write stories about baseball players namely because they have to – there’s a lot of time to fill in baseball telecasts and finding things to talk about between pitches or batters isn’t always easy. None of these guys have had it easy – If you think Lester’s cancer of Buchholz’ confidence were problems, remember that Bard was drafted by the Yankees in 2003, for Dave Roberts’ sake.
Finally, the work that Team Epstein-Lucchino-Henry have done is really starting to show. Yes, the Sox have made trades and big signings – Manny, Papi, Varitek, Beckett, Schilling, Drew and so many more Red Sox with championship rings were/are borrowed laundry. But it warrants mentioning here that the Yankees won a harem of championships when Jeter, Rivera and Posada showed up and mixed in with O’Neill, Bernie, Pettite part 1 and Girardi. I’m not saying that’s about to happen – I do prefer the reverse jinx to blatant self-promotion, whenever possible – but after an April in which nobody did anything right, Ortiz, Youkilis (another home-grown talent, and owner of one of the more interesting Wikipedia pages in baseball, seriously, check it out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kevin_Youkilis), Drew, Beltre, Hermida and Pedroia are finally starting to swing the bats; Ells and Cameron are healthy and the pitching is finally performing as advertised – yes, even number 58 is throwing and locating the way we wanted him to.
Baseball can change in a heartbeat. It’s a long season and a lot can go wrong or right. The Sox’ recent successes are not a free pass to a pennant, but they’re definitely steps in the right direction. There will be swoons and there will be streaks as the year goes on, but it must make Epstein and friends glad to see their years of work finally paying off. We can only hope it continues to translate on the field.