PORTLAND – Lance Armstrong and Mario Lemieux didn’t set the bar high. They smashed it to smithereens.

Every elite athlete felled in the infancy or prime of his career by the most frightening word in the English language now makes that courageous comeback under different rules.

Those two giants, both worthy to chainsawed into the Mount Rushmore of their professions, made cancer treatment appear mundane as rubbing hydrogen peroxide on a nasty flesh wound.

So our expectations of Jon Lester — 23-year-old, 6-foot-2, 190-pound Jon Lester, with the hellzapoppin’ fastball in the low 90s — are insanely inflated, all too accelerated.

Each of us knows a person who knows a person who knows a person who was diagnosed with cancer and died less than a month later.

To be diagnosed, treated, tentatively healed and return to a job that requires every bone and sinew to sing in intuitive harmony, in a matter of months, and be as good or better than ever is not normal. It’s probably not even human.

Cancer stories don’t always end with a champagne-impaired stroll down the Champs Elysees or a Labatt’s-drenched Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Often as not, they end with Billy Dee Williams crying at James Caan’s bedside in “Brian’s Song.”

So let’s live in the moment. Ask not what Jon Lester can do for you during the impending September stretch drive. Simply celebrate what he accomplished at Hadlock Field against the Trenton Thunder before a sold-out house that seemed to get it Monday night.

Six-plus innings. Ninety-five pitches. Four strikeouts. Four walks. One earned run. Precisely 7,368 partisans politely saluting him every time he blinked, like moms at a T-Ball game.

And another win.

“Hopefully I’m on the post-season roster,” said Lester, who is expected to pitch for the parent club against Baltimore on Sunday. “If not, that’s something I’ll have to shoot for next year.”

Lester unwittingly became an expert at living turn-to-turn in life’s rotation a year ago, when a fender-bender left him with a backache that wouldn’t go away and sent him for a life-saving checkup.

Being dispatched to Double-A one week before the Sept. 1 threshold, when the team with the best record in the bigs presumably carves its playoff roster in granite, is the kind of front office vote of reluctance that would have sent Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd on a hunger strike.

“He’s great around the guys. He fits right in. He doesn’t act disappointed to be here,” said Portland manager Arnie Beyeler. “He and (Sea Dogs pitcher) John Barnes both have big-league experience. To have both those guys sitting together down at the end of the bench, talking about different situations, you don’t replace that.”

Two wins and a pedestrian ERA of five-and-a-half during a dog day recall didn’t disguise the fact that Lester, physically and mentally, was better served wheeling and dealing in Greenville, Pawtucket and Portland this summer than in Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium in the inferno of another overhyped push for a meaningless division title.

The post-chemotherapy Lester remains a mixed bag.

Between Monday’s third and sixth innings, when he retired 10 straight Trenton hitters and allowed only three balls past his infielders, he looked the part of the 2005 Eastern League pitcher of the year.

During a 21-pitch, first-inning walkfest and while yielding a double and two singles to christen the third frame, he looked like a young man rightfully using his GPS on the road to recovery.

Whether or not he’ll be ready in 2008 to own the corners against jacked-up Major League hitters the way he quelled the Thunder — or in 2009, or ever — is a screenplay waiting to be written. Sadly, the Sox-Yankees relationship being the arms race and trade deadline meat market it is, perhaps it’s a feelgood movie waiting to be filmed in Kansas City, Washington or Pittsburgh.

But we watched it when.

We stood and applauded when Lester trotted in from the bullpen, mopped his brow with a towel and doffed his cap.

“To come in and see that and know that people are wishing you well and that they care about you, that’s a good feeling,” Lester said.

We did it again after Sea Dogs manager Arnie Beyeler left in his ringer for the obligatory four-pitch walk before a curtain call to start the seventh inning.

“Nobody’s bigger than the game of baseball,” said Sea Dogs catcher John Otness. “Jon is a hero to many, many people. He’s a hero to me. He just stands up for what is right.”

We saw what a comeback from cancer is like in the real world, in the sport our underdog nation traditionally has loved most, orchestrated by an Everyman who is four years away from even being officially considered cured.

That makes it no less inspiring, no less legitimate, no less extraordinary.

Kalle Oakes ibs a staff writer. His e-mail is koakes


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