Sox fans should take it slow with Lester’s return

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Jon Lester goes back to the mound tonight for the first time since his emotional return in Cleveland on Monday. The latest chapter in his triumph over non-Hodgkins lymphoma is the feel-good story of the summer. And as we all know, sports badly needs a feel-good story this summer.

Red Sox fans have been clamoring for Lester’s return since spring training. It seemed like some fans wanted him in the rotation just so they could give him the well-deserved standing ovation that inevitably awaits him when he toes the rubber at Fenway again. Others saw him as a more viable option for the rotation than Julian Tavarez, and they wanted Lester to continue the chain of stud pitching prospects the Red Sox now have at their disposal, from Papelbon to Lester to Buchholz.

Lester was last year’s Papelbon, a much-hyped farm-hand called up during the season to help the big club in the heat of the pennant race. The results were mixed. Lester went 7-2 in 15 starts, but he was very inconsistent. Every other inning, he seemed to be pitching himself out of a bases-loaded jam. There were signs of the stuff that made him a highly-regarded prospect, but it was clear that the kid still needed some seasoning.

There were flashes of that Lester in Monday’s win over Cleveland. There were also flashes of brilliance. Make no mistake, his return would have been worthy of all the tears and attaboys if he’d lasted one inning and given up eight runs. We’ll take a six-inning, five-hit, three-walk, two-run outing every time. But one start does not a comeback make. Given all of the emotions that must have been running through his mind, it’s probably safe to say we barely got a glimpse of what the real Jon Lester, 2007 edition, can and will be.

Tonight’s start may be more fair to judge for Lester. There will probably be less butterflies, but there will also be less talent stepping into the batters box to face him, too. Tampa Bay probably the perfect No. 2 start for him. Tropicana Field isn’t exactly a pressure cooker. There will almost certainly be more Sox fans than Rays fans in the stands.

Lester’s emotional return to Boston comes at the start of next week, though he actually won’t be taking the mound during the abbreviated three-game homestand against Baltimore. In fact, Fenway won’t be able to throw its loving arms around him until the Sox return from their final West Coast road trip the 13th of August. By then, Lester may have been replaced in the rotation by Curt Schilling, who is scheduled for one more rehab start before taking his spot back from either Lester or Kason Gabbard.

With Thursday night’s rocky start by Gabbard, both pitcher’s chances look about 50/50 at this point. Red Sox fans probably won’t be happy if Gabbard gets the nod over Lester. But I’m willing to give the Boston braintrust the benefit of the doubt on that one. They know Lester’s physical, mental and emotional state better than we do. They know whether he’s ready for the intensity of the post-trade deadling pennant race. And they know what’s best for his long-term development as a pitcher.

Sox fans need to look past the understandable emotions they’re feeling about this inspirational comeback, for the good of the Red Sox and more importantly, for the good of Jon Lester.

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