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Most Boston Red Sox fans would agree that Jon Lester was the unofficial ace of the 2010 starting rotation. Wednesday afternoon in Ft. Myers, Fla., manager Terry Francona made it official, naming Lester as the Opening Day starter. Lester will face off against fellow lefty C.J. Wilson and the defending American League-champion Texas Rangers in Arlington on April 1.
Lester went 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA last season for the Red Sox. He struck out 225 in 208.0 innings pitched. He pitched two complete games.
Although he has never started an Opening Day before, Lester is no stranger to big-stage games. He pitched so well in the clinching Game Four of the 2007 World Series that Curt Schilling had to make up a word (“clutchiest”) to describe Lester’s start.
Lester pitched the 18th no-hitter in Red Sox history on May 19, 2008, against the Kansas City Royals. During the 2008 postseason, he won Game One of the 2008 ALDS against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He threw seven shutout innings in Game Four of that ALDS, which the Red Sox won in the ninth. He also started two games in the ’08 ALCS against the Tampa Bay Rays, where he went 0-2.
Really, who else was Francona going to pick? Josh Beckett has more experience, having started the previous two Opening Days, but Beckett had a terrible, injury-plagued 2010 season (6-6, 5.78 ERA). And in three Spring Training starts this season, Beckett is 0-2 with a 6.52 ERA. Beckett has yet to convince anyone that he can return to his old position as staff ace.
Based on the 2010 season and Spring Training, the only other pitcher one could argue for would be Clay Buchholz (17-7, including a complete-game shutout, 2.33 ERA; 0.00 ERA in 9.0 Spring Training innings). But Lester has started twice as many games and pitched over twice as many innings as Buchholz. That means Lester has twice the experience Buchholz has, and with experience comes poise. Buchholz is still developing, and tabbing him to start Opening Day might put unnecessary pressure on a pitcher for whom each start is still a major learning experience.
Buchholz will be a central part of the Red Sox’ rotation for years to come. He is sure to get an Opening Day start at some point. But that’s all in the future. Lester is the present.
It is Lester’s time to prove once and for all whether or not he can be the rock of a pitching rotation. His performance last season, combined with that fusion of power and patience with which he pitches, makes him the best choice for Opening Day.
Francona’s choice probably has as much to do with the opponent as with the pitcher. In six starts against the Rangers since 2008, Lester is 3-1 with a 2.62 ERA. Buchholz is 1-2 with a 3.24 ERA in three starts. Beckett is 1-1 with a 6.12 ERA in four starts.
Lester is also fantastic at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. In two starts since 2008, Lester is 1-0 with a 1.93 ERA. In 2010, Lester pitched eight shutout innings in Arlington, striking out five and walking none. He has 16 career strikeouts there to just three walks. Both Beckett and Buchholz have ERAs of 5.00 or worse in Arlington.
Then there’s Lester’s counterpart. Last season, Wilson went 15-8 with a solid 3.35 ERA, striking out 170 in 204.0 innings. He pitched three complete games. Wilson has always been a tough opponent for the Red Sox. He’s 3-1 lifetime against Boston with 1.68 ERA, 3-0 as a starter, with all three wins coming in 2010.
Wilson beat both Lester and Buchholz last season, but both of those games were at Fenway Park. The Rangers scored three runs off both Lester and Buchholz in those games, so Francona could pretty much flip a coin between the two.
Wilson has yet to start against the Red Sox in Arlington. With Lester’s better numbers there, combined with his self-control and discipline, he is the best option available to start on Opening Day.
Lester’s quest for the Cy Young starts April 1. Wilson and the Rangers will be waiting.