Jon Lester is back on the mound and that was all the news the Boston Red Sox really needed to get Monday in Jacobs Field. Because even though there was a game to play, baseball was really a footnote on this night.
His career short-circuited by a cancer diagnosis last September, Lester made a triumphant return to the major leagues by throwing six strong innings in Boston's 6-2 win over the Cleveland Indians.
The 23-year-old left-hander's parents traveled from the family home in Seattle to be in the stands for his comeback night. And Lester got a big ovation when he took the mound in the bottom of the first from a huge contingent of Red Sox fans in the crowd of 32,439.
"In a day or two, it will finally hit home that this happened," Lester said. "But right now it's just a lot of excitement and a lot of happiness. I figured the day would come. I just didn't know when. I'm fortunate enough for it to be this early on."
Lester allowed just five hits, including Grady Sizemore's two-run homer in the third. He struck out six and walked three in throwing 96 pitches while consistently putting his fastball around 92 mph.
"Impressed. Proud. A lot of adjectives," said Boston manager Terry Francona, speaking slowly to maintain his composure. "It was supposed to be his night."
Lester, a seven-game winner as a rookie last year, had not pitched for Boston since last Aug. 23. He learned on Sept. 1 that he had anaplastic large cell lymphoma, a treatable form of cancer.
After six chemotherapy treatments, he was deemed cancer-free in December and reported on time to spring training although he still must undergo four checkups a year to look for recurrences.
"He's worked his whole life to get to the big leagues," said Boston third baseman Mike Lowell, himself a survivor of testicular cancer in 1999. "I don't think he wants to stop now. A true defining moment for him would be to make a big-league career out of this. Then the story is that much better."
The Sox have taken his comeback slowly, keeping him out of big-league spring training and in the minors. He was 4-5, 3.61 at Triple-A Pawtucket and finally got the call when struggling fifth starter Julian Tavarez was sent to the bullpen.
"You root for a guy in life first and foremost," Cleveland manager Eric Wedge said before the game. "You hope he has a long healthy life. Look how far he's come."
Lester retired six of the final seven men he faced and that streak began when he fanned Sizemore on a 93-mph fastball to leave the bases loaded in the fourth. His parents, John and Kathie, were cheering wildly behind the dugout after that strikeout.
"They've been through a lot," Lester said. "It's been a long offseason. It's definitely good to have them here to share the fruits of the labor and enjoy the moment."
Boston got a quick jump on Cleveland starter Jake Westbrook (1-6) with a four-run first highlighted by Manny Ramirez's two-run double. Another former Indian, leadoff man Coco Crisp, went 4 for 5 and scored three runs as the Sox maintained their 7 1/2 -game AL East lead over New York.
The quick offense was all Lester needed to keep control of the game. It was a little tougher, he said, to control his emotions.
"It was very emotional in the first inning and I just tried to keep the butterflies in check a little bit," Lester said. "Once I got that first pitch under my belt, it was good after that."
"He's got to be as healthy as anyone: a big-league pitcher in good shape at 23," Lowell said. "It shows [cancer] can jump on anyone but it can be beaten and you can get back to a point where you can enjoy life."
The series continues tonight at 7 as Cleveland lefty C.C. Sabathia (13-4, 3.81), the AL co-victory leader, meets Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka (11-7, 3.99).