December 20, 2014

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Lester beats toughest foe


CLEVELAND — The most important victory of Jon Lester’s life did not come on a hot July evening at Jacobs Field, but in a sterile doctor’s office in December, at a time when baseball seemed furthest away.
It was there that doctors informed Lester that his cancer — anaplastic large cell lymphoma — had been effectively contained and that he could resume his budding career as a baseball player in earnest.
When Lester fixed his cap closely over his eyes and pumped a 90 mph fastball into the glove of catcher Jason Varitek on Monday, he concluded an exhaustive journey from diagnosis to treatment to revival. And that came before he threw six effective innings, allowing two runs on five hits in the Boston Red Sox’s 6-2 victory over the Indians.
“It felt real good — a lot of emotions, a lot of excitement,” said Lester. “It’s good to be back with these guys again, to get to play up here again.”
Lester’s harrowing odyssey came suddenly and without warning, cutting short what had been a highly successful rookie season. Lester had just finished his Aug. 23 start in Anaheim when he grew concerned about an unyielding pain in his lower back.
After an examination by his uncle, a doctor in Tacoma, Wash., Lester was shocked to learn the back pain and a previous weight loss of 10 pounds had been warning signs of a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer that originates in the lymphatic system.
Lester underwent six rounds of chemotherapy over the next three months. By December, doctors told Lester the treatment had removed all evidence of visible cancer cells and he was in remission. But it’s a five-year process before he can be declared cancer-free, including a scan every three months during this first year.
The Red Sox made Lester take a cautious and deliberate road back to the big leagues.
At times, Lester described the wait as hanging in eternal limbo.
“It was hard and frustrating to do the steps and the progressions that (the club) had,” said Lester. “It’s been hard getting treated like you’re in a glass bottle.”
As he settled on the mound Monday in his first start in 11 months, Lester varied between sharp and erratic. After retiring the first six batters he faced, Lester labored in both the third and fourth innings. He gave up a towering two-run home run to Grady Sizemore in the third, but then proceeded to strike out Sizemore in the fourth in a decisive bases-loaded situation.
“The guy showed some poise out there,” Indians manager Eric Wedge said. “He was under control and looked like he didn’t try to do too much.”
Lester’s parents, John and Kathie, traveled from their home in Puyallup, Wash., to be on hand, bringing some personal closure to the comeback. In the fourth inning, when Sizemore came to bat, Lester’s mother, sitting behind home plate, had to cover her eyes. The tension was too much.
But it was the best kind of tension — a welcome reprieve considering what the family has faced over the last 11 months.
“It meant so much that they were there,” Lester said. “They’ve been through a lot. It was a long off-season. “I’m trying to put (all this) behind me and move on and go back to pitching and not worry about things.
“But every three months I have to go back and get that reality check,” he added, alluding to regular tests for cancer cells.
Lester was only too happy to be discussing baseball on Monday. The relentlessness of talking about cancer and chemotherapy treatment can become a vacuum, said Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell.
“Trust me, anyone going through this doesn’t want to talk about it,” said Lowell, who underwent surgery for testicular cancer in 1999. “He wants to be a baseball player rather than a cancer survivor. I’m super happy for him and I think he feels like it’s a long time coming. He’s answering more cancer questions than baseball questions. You’d rather talk about baseball, but with me it took about a year and a half.”
But finally that glass bubble is shattered. And Lester is back where he belongs.
“I figured this day would come, I just didn’t know when,” said Lester. “That I was fortunate enough for it to be this early on is great. I’m just trying to enjoy the moment.”
Contact Pete Alpern at 329-7137 or palpern@chroniclet.com.