PORTLAND – The last time Portland Sea Dogs fans saw Jon Lester on the Hadlock Field mound, he was a fresh-faced, highly-touted prospect on a fast track to the major leagues.

Monday night, they saw him again for the first time in two years, but Lester is more than a can’t-miss farmhand now. He is a cancer survivor.

So the sellout crowd of 7,368 greeted him with two standing ovations, the first when he walked in from the bullpen in pregame and the second when he and the Sea Dogs took the field to start Portland’s Eastern League game with the Trenton Thunder.

Then they sent him off, most likely back to Boston to face Baltimore on Sunday, with a thunderous farewell when manager Arnie Beyeler sent him to the showers after walking the leadoff batter on four pitches in the seventh.

“It really just reminded me of a smaller version of Fenway from my last start,” Lester said. “It gives you goose bumps, and it’s nice to see people care about you and are wishing you well.”

Lester left having thrown his 95th pitch (52 for strikes) and, after a tip of his cap and some congratulatory hand-pounds from his teammates, walked down the dugout steps having staked Portland to a 4-1 lead. The Sea Dogs rewarded him with the win in a 5-2 victory.

“He was on a pitch count. He was pretty close to it and we just wanted to give him another up-down to see if he could go out, because who know how he’s going to be used back up there,” Beyeler said. “He was coming out of his delivery there and threw the four straight balls and that was enough.”

“At times really good and at times back to the old deal with fastball command,” Lester said when asked to assess his performance. “I felt good at times mechanically. I felt like I’d figured a couple of things out out there and then a couple batters later I’d just go back to being all over the place.”

Lester has literally been all over the place since his rookie year in Boston ended abruptly last August, when he was diagnosed with a treatable form of anaplastic large cell (non-Hodgkins) lymphoma. He underwent chemotherapy treatment through December, then began a long journey back to the major leagues. Coming out of spring training, the Red Sox put him on a Major League Rehabilitation Assignment with Class A Greenville. Between there and Triple-A Pawtucket, Lester made 17 starts before finally being promoted to Boston on July 23. He made an emotional return to Fenway Park on Aug. 14 against Tampa Bay. In four starts with Boston, he is 2-0 with a 5.67 ERA.

Needing to call up left-handed reliever Javier Lopez to help them in their series with the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees, the Red Sox removed Lester from the starting rotation late last week and replaced him with Julian Tavarez. Due to a scheduling conflict with Pawtucket, Boston’s braintrust elected to send the 23-year-old to Double-A Portland, where he was the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year in 2005.

Back then, Lester was one of the most prized prospects in the Boston organization, and his lone year in Portland only made his stock rise. He posted an 11-6 record and a 2.61 ERA (Monday’s performance lowered his Sea Dogs’ career ERA to 2.57, which surpassed Marc Valdes for the franchise record).

Lester yielded five hits and one earned run in his six innings. He struck out four and walked four.

The Sea Dogs were glad to see Lester for other reasons. Locked in a battle with New Hampshire for second place in the Northern Division and a spot in the Eastern League playoffs, Portland is playing back-to-back doubleheaders today and Wednesday. That’s just part of a final home stand of the regular season that swelled to six games with the Thunder due to early-season postponements.

“It’s an enormous lift for us,” said catcher John Otness, whose history with Lester goes back to their days as high school rivals in Washington. “The electricity that was a part of this ballpark tonight was what the playoffs and what playing late in the season is about, and he brought it to us.”

Lester struggled in the early going, walking two of Trenton’s first three batters. He got out of the jam with a fly-out to right and a strikeout.

“The big thing for Jon was to just stay behind the baseball, but his ability to bounce back and make pitches is why he is who he is,” Otness said. “Even if he feels like he’s struggling, his ability to dominate a baseball game is still there.”

Trenton starter Dan McCutchen had even more trouble finding the plate in the bottom of the first, walking the first three batters. It looked like he would continue to follow Lester’s lead and wiggle out of the jam with two straight pop outs, but Jay Johnson’s pop fly dropped in front of the center fielder to score Portland’s first two runs.

The Sea Dogs added two more in the second before Trenton finally touched Lester for a run on three hits in the third. Lester left two runners on in each of the first three innings before finally setting the side down in order in the fourth. He would end up retiring 10 in a row before issuing another walk with two out in the sixth. A passed ball and a single that followed could have led to the second Trenton run, but Johnson gunned down Carlos Mendoza at the plate to preserve the 4-1 lead and was greeted by an appreciative Lester in front of the Portland dugout.

“I always liked being here because it reminded me a lot of home,” said the Tacoma, Washington native. “I have a lot of good memories here. … I’ve had a lot of good games, but at the same time, this isn’t where I want to be.”


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