CLEVELAND (AP) – Jon Lester crowned his courageous comeback with a victory.
The young pitcher, whose rookie season ended suddenly when he was diagnosed with cancer, pitched six innings to win his first game in 11 months and lead the Boston Red Sox over the Cleveland Indians 6-2 on Monday night.
Working to major leaguers while his parents sat on the edge of their seats near Boston’s dugout, Lester allowed two runs and five hits to easily handle the Indians, the AL’s best team at home.
Lester’s journey back couldn’t have had a better checkpoint.
The 23-year-old left-hander had been in the midst of a stellar first season when a visit to the doctor for back pain resulted in a startling find that threatened his life and stunned Red Sox Nation.
Lester was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma, a highly treatable form of cancer, just days after he improved to 7-2 with a win over the Los Angeles Angels on Aug. 23.
Over the next months, Lester would undergo six chemotherapy sessions that eventually eradicated the disease. Still, there would be other hurdles to overcome as the Red Sox cautiously handled his return.
But in the opener of a four-game series, Lester showed the same form that made him instantly popular at Fenway Park, where he is certain to have another emotional game when he finally pitches there again.
Coco Crisp went 4-for-5 and scored three runs for Boston, which jumped to a 5-0 lead in the second off Jake Westbrook (1-6).
Manny Ramirez had two RBIs as the Red Sox became the majors’ first team to reach 60 wins.
Grady Sizemore hit a two-run homer for the Indians, who opened an 11-game homestand.
The sight of Lester walking to the mound drew a standing ovation from pockets of Boston fans scattered throughout Jacobs Field, a ballpark he didn’t get to pitch in during his abbreviated first season.
Any nervousness for Lester may have been soothed by his teammates giving him a 4-0 lead before he threw a pitch. Lester breezed through the first two innings, getting a double play after hitting Ryan Garko to open the second.
In the third, Sizemore connected for a two-run homer off Lester, who was in trouble again in the fourth.
The Indians loaded the bases with one out but Lester broke Josh Barfield’s bat on a comebacker that he bobbled before throwing home to force Garko. With Sizemore back up, Lester’s mom, Kathie, couldn’t watch as her son battled Cleveland’s leadoff hitter.
When Lester finally blew a fastball past Sizemore for strike three to end the threat, his father, John, and Kathie jumped up and pumped their fists in celebration. However, she quickly sat back down and resumed her doubled-up position, seemingly afraid to watch anymore.
At a time when sports headlines were dominated by an NBA betting scandal, Michael Vick’s alleged dogfighting involvement and an ongoing steroid investigation that has tainted Barry Bonds’ chase of Henry Aaron’s home run record, along came Lester.
“Wow, it’s a great story,” knuckleballer Tim Wakefield said, glancing in the direction of Lester’s locker. “It’s been a long road for him, but today’s a day where you can say he made it back.
“Words can’t describe it. I can’t even pick one. Maybe, perseverance.”
Lester’s comeback has inspired the Red Sox, who were marveling at his composure and maturity long before he began chemotherapy.
Lester, who became the first Red Sox rookie lefty to win his first five decisions, had eased into Boston’s rotation when cancer imperiled his young life. But by December, he was throwing again and he showed up at training camp two weeks before pitchers and catchers were due.
Although he appeared ready, the Red Sox decided to bring Lester along slowly, allowing him to pitch in the minors for more than three months before recalling him Monday from Triple-A Pawtucket.
Lester’s return figured to be an emotional one for his immediate family and those who love him for the beloved “B” on his cap.
“This isn’t even about baseball,” Curt Schilling said. “It just doesn’t get any better the way a guy like that comes back to us. It’s about family. The big thing is he’s a great human being and that makes it an even better story. That wasn’t your run-of-the-mill DL stint.”
Knowing him as they do, his teammates said Lester wants to be known as a successful major league pitcher – not just a cancer survivor.
“I think everyone in this room would want it the same way,” Wakefield said. “He’s somebody who survived cancer but he doesn’t want that label. He’s not the type of person that would want your sympathy. He wants to prove himself and show that he can compete at this level.”
The Red Sox quickly staked Lester to a 5-0 lead.
Boston tagged Westbrook for four in the first, loading the bases with none out before Ramirez hit a two-run double. J.D. Drew followed with an RBI single and Boston scored its fourth run on a double-play grounder.
Crisp, playing in Cleveland for the first time since being traded in 2006, doubled in the second and scored on a single by Kevin Youkilis.
Notes: Red Sox DH David Ortiz missed his third straight game after injuring his left shoulder on a slide Friday. Ortiz hit off a tee before the game and plans to take batting practice on Tuesday. “Every day it feels better,” he said. Ortiz noted that he got hurt trying to stretch a single by challenging the arm of Chicago right fielder Jermaine Dye. “I’ve run on him two times and both times I was out, and both times I got hurt,” he said. … Garko extended his hitting streak to 16 games. He’s batting .463 over the span. … Manny Delcarmen pitched three innings for his first career save.