In the midst of a last-place tenure, fans have two things to fall back on: enjoying the game that day in a vacuum, and dreaming about a better future.
The Boston Red Sox in the midst of a doomed season have done their part to drum up at least some excitement to days ahead, playing rookies and letting fans wonder about the talent percolating in Pawtucket and Portlant. While 2014 is doomed, maybe there’s a light in 2015.
That mindset doesn’t mesh well with sentimentality, though, where Jon Lester, the team’s ace, is concerned. It looks increasingly likely that he won’t be in the 2015 team photo. He might not even make it to Friday, which is tough to swallow for those who have watched him develop for the past nine seasons.
2006 was another doomed year. Boston stayed in the race and was in first place at various points in the season, but a string of injuries — to Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek, Coco Crisp and Alex Gonzalez, among others — led to the wheels falling off in August. It happens, and it happened to them.
But two years removed from the glow of the first World Series win in multiple generations, the team was starting to move on and ramp up towards the wave that would help build another champion. A rookie reserve in 2004, Kevin Youkilis became a fixture at first base that season. Jonathan Papelbon assumed the closer’s role from Keith Foulke. Dustin Pedroia saw his first big-league action towards the end of the year.
And on June 10th, the Red Sox promoted Jon Lester, their highly touted lefty prospect, and plugged him into the rotation. And he was okay, at first. He made into the fifth inning and gave up three runs to the Texas Rangers that night, taking a no-decision in a 7-4 loss for the Red Sox. That would be his second-shortest outing of his rookie season, and he wouldn’t pitch fewer than five innings until mid-August – by the time July was out, he was 5-1 with the Red Sox going 6-4 on his days on the mound.
One start that has always stood out — honestly, the only other one I can clearly remember beyond the blur — was his eighth start against the Kansas City Royals. I remember vividly watching that on my futon in my Quincy apartment, incorrectly thinking that it was a Wednesday night (it was Tuesday). Lester looked like a little kid, with his hat brim pulled down and tilted slightly to the left. And he was quiet, never seeming to shout or speak more than a couple of words whenever Varitek came out to the mound.
But he was efficient, throwing exactly 100 pitches over eight innings. He walked four Royals, struck out four more and getting a tremendous number of groundouts to keep the Royals frustrated and off the boards. And when Papelbon came in to close it out in the ninth with a clean 1-2-3 inning, it felt like the beginning of a combo that could sustain the Red Sox for years.
That came to fruition, of course, but not before a scare that cut that first season short — Lester’s lymphoma diagnosis and the treatment and rehab that followed. That he was back in the Red Sox rotation less than a year later felt like something just south of a miracle, and when he and Papelbon again teamed up in the clinching Game 4 of that year’s World Series, things felt like they were in order again.
The future’s always brightest because it doesn’t ever come, of course. Lester would become the rock in the Red Sox’ rotation, again so quietly, making the past four Opening Day starts and assuring that, whatever else, the top of the rotation would be set. He’s made at least 31 starts every year since 2008, has been an All-Star three times, no-hit the Royals in ’08 and won another World Series last year.
But he’s been scratched from his start tonight. As of this writing, he hasn’t been traded, and if he survives the July 31 trade deadline (and makes it through the August 31 waiver deadline), there’s still a chance he leaves via free agency. So we’re all sitting here, wondering if the ax falls and the rock of a rotation leaves so much sooner than anyone expected.
It was hard to envision this even a couple of weeks ago, but it’s a cold reminder of the reality of baseball. Nothing is set in stone, and anything that works out is a pleasant result of timely planning and nothing more. Players and teams know it and are comfortable with reality. The future and romanticism is for fans.