FORT MYERS, Fla. -- You can forget how big a guy he is. How big his hands are. How fluid his delivery is. How much poise he has for a pitcher who is 23 years old.
If the 18-20 scouts who were on hand to watch Jon Lester and the Twins' Sidney Ponson in a "B" game at Hammond Stadium yesterday morning had just climbed out of a cave, they never would have known that Lester is coming off a winter when he was treated for anaplastic large cell lymphoma. They saw a big, strong kid throwing the ball pretty well -- hitting 90 miles per hour with one fastball, 89 on two others -- in an eight-pitch outing in which he got three ground balls before hitting the shower.
You could sense Lester's frustration about wanting to stay out there for another inning. After all, eight pitches? But the Red Sox are taking a long-term view. As pitching coach John Farrell put it, "We're trying to look at 10, 12, 15 years down the road. I think Jon has finally accepted that. It's hard for him because he wants to go out there and be on the same schedule as everyone else, and in the drills we performed, he was. But we're just trying to be smart."
But there's also no room at the inn. As long as the Red Sox continue with their current plans of a five-man rotation with Jonathan Papelbon in it, Lester will start the season elsewhere. Assistant general manager Jed Hoyer, who had a seat directly behind home plate yesterday, said the Sox have a few weeks to determine just where that will be. The options are Triple A, extended spring training, or even Double A.
Lester, for his part, has made it clear that he doesn't want preferential treatment. He wants to be in lockstep with everyone else. But the "proceed with caution" message has begun to sink in.
"They have my best interest involved, and I'm not too worried about it," said Lester, who was 7-2 with a 4.76 ERA in 15 starts last season before the cancer diagnosis in late August. "I'll get my work in one way or the other. We'll just take it slow and go from there."
It was clear how important yesterday's outing was: Hoyer was in the scouts' seating section along with Allard Baird, the top assistant to general manager Theo Epstein, who was also in the house along with vice president of player personnel Ben Cherington. Manager Terry Francona canceled his usual pregame media session to make the trip with Farrell.
"It was pretty good," Lester said. "I felt good mechanically and threw strikes. That was the main thing."
Francona commented that Lester had "a little finish" on his fastball that the manager didn't notice in Lester's final four or five starts last season.
For Lester, it was an emotional day, but he tried to make it as routine and normal as possible. In fact, "normal" is a word you hear often from his mouth, because that's what he feels he is and wants to remain.
"I was trying to throw as hard as I could," he said. "I was trying to make it as gamelike as possible and get the adrenaline going. You get your work done, that's the main thing. I threw strikes. It felt good in a game situation for the first time and getting that heart rate going a little bit.
"It was great just to get back and be normal again. It's awesome to get back on the mound and throw the baseball and not worry about other things. I enjoyed it, and hopefully we can build from here."
There were more scouts in the stands than fans, but for Lester it might as well have been a capacity crowd. Putting on the uniform and facing professional hitters (Alexi Casilla, Glenn Williams, and Mike Redmond) felt awfully good.
"There were some jitters," said Lester. "I didn't know where it was going to go. I just tried to hit his glove and do the best I could, and luckily it was a strike."
There will not be many times when the number of pitches he throws in warmups (35-40) is almost five times what he throws in the game. But he understands that's the way it has to be right now. He'll pitch a two-inning simulated game to minor leaguers on Saturday.
"I thought my command was great," Lester said. "I went away when I wanted to go away, I went in when I wanted to go in. I was in the general vicinity of all my pitches. I don't know what the velocity was. It felt good.
"We'll just build from here and get stronger as camp goes on, and if the velocity's not there, we'll build it back up to normal.
"I was just trying to get a feel. It's hard early on when you're facing hitters, you try to do too much with your offspeed stuff. I was just trying to get a feel for it and loop a couple up there and see if they'll swing at them."
Lester has said his legs will be the last thing to come along.
"I think I'm still building it back up from last season, but I think I'm right about 85-90 percent," he said. "Getting close, starting to feel a little more comfortable with my body and how things are flowing."
He doesn't believe the six rounds of chemotherapy he underwent are a factor anymore. He said he's recovered completely from them.
"After that first pitch, it was like everything is back to normal, throwing to hitters again that I don't know, and just enjoying it, having fun," said Lester. "When the lights go on and the stands are filled up, it will be a different feeling."