Jon Lester's nightmare is finally over. At least for now.
While Lester had not been able to avoid the late-season fade that so plagued the Red Sox last year, he was still coming off another successful season. Before the last few games of the year, he had been having one of the best years of his career, holding an ERA under 3.00 as late as September 10. His peripherals were a little down, but on the whole he looked like he was in his absolute prime.
Then came the meltdown, with Lester allowing 18 runs in his last 20 innings of work, and somehow it continued right on into 2013.
On some level it was clear from day one that Lester wasn't himself. Though we may not have known the magnitude of the problem at that point, even when he was holding the Tigers to one run over seven innings of work, Lester didn't exactly look dominant, with clean innings hard to come by. It would take another couple of games before the damage really started to come, but twelve runs in two games spelled the beginning of the long, long end for Lester.
Oh, sure, there were signs of the old Lester. Twelve strikeouts against Cleveland here, seven strong innings against New York there. In fact, over the last two months of the season, when all was essentially lost, Lester didn't even do that bad, putting up a 3.76 ERA over his last 80-odd frames. Even then, though, the sheer level of dominance we've seen him provide in the past just wasn't there. He was a shadow of his former self.
For Lester, the path back likely has a good few steps, but first and foremost he has to find his old cutter. For all that Lester dealt with composure issues (especially surrounding close ball calls) and a small downward tick in velocity, the problem was simply where the ball went. We've seen Lester dominate opposing batters with that pitch for years, getting them to swing at pitches that to end up time and again dropping down and in towards their feet, or catching the inside corner against a lefty as they darted back trying to avoid taking one in the ribs.
This year, however, those cutters too often lacked the life that made them such weapons. Pitches that once would have bored down and in on a batter's knees as their bat crossed the plate instead stayed in the zone. The ones that would have cut back into the zone instead stayed too far in. Too often Lester elected to challenge with the former, and the result was more hits and homers than he's ever allowed before.
More than any other player, the Red Sox need Lester to bounce back in 2013. He'll be just 29 years old, so it's not exactly beyond the realm of expectations that he will, either. Like so many other players on the roster, though, Lester is someone we just can't be sure of. As much as we hope against hope that he'll be his old self again, we've seen too much bad now to deny just how far he can fall.