The first indication came when Jon Lester pulled a duffel bag out of the cubbyhole above his locker. It contained a medley of warm-up jackets and uniform pants, all of which Lester proceeded to neatly fold and set down.
Not long after a side session yesterday with pitching coach John Farrell, before the rain came and washed away last night's game against the Tigers, one that will be made up as part of a day-night doubleheader starting today at 12:35 p.m., Lester got to give the pronouncement he had been waiting to deliver.
It was time for him to pitch. Saturday, for Pawtucket in Ottawa, to be exact.
After two weeks of caution and long toss and bullpen sessions, Lester will be restarting his rehabilitation, back to the minors on another 30-day rehab assignment. It will potentially get him that much closer to a spot in the Red Sox' rotation, a spot that's been on his mind for quite a while.
"I'm real anxious," Lester said. "More or less, I just want to go pitch and not worry about a count or how many innings or anything. Just go pitch and not worry about anything. Just 'Here's the ball and we'll go get you when you're done' type thing. Hopefully, we'll get there soon."
It's been two weeks since Lester encountered a hitch in his quest to return to the rotation, coming back from anaplastic large cell lymphoma. His doctors told him he was free of cancer five cycles of chemotherapy into his treatment, and since that time, his focus has been on two things: recovery and return.
But that was before Lester came out of his first rehab start with Pawtucket with cramping in his left forearm. Since that time, the Sox have proceeded gingerly, having Lester work out with the big league club until they felt he could return to Triple A. That time is now.
Though he seems to rebel against it, Lester will still be on a pitch count, no matter how eager he is to take off the shackles. His limit will be 50-55 pitches against Ottawa.
"He must be feeling good because he's really fighting us on that," manager Terry Francona said. "He's ready to throw 100; that's probably really, really good."
Even with the setbacks, Lester said his pitching this year has been vastly different than last year. With his personal maturity has come baseball maturity, a sense that he can understand his mechanics enough to diagnose problems on his own. That, perhaps, is where the uptick in velocity -- noted in some of his minor league rehab starts in the mid-90s -- has manifested itself.
"I can't even begin to tell you how much improvement it's been," Lester said. "I don't have enough time. Really. It's, I'd say, tenfold. Just mechanically, I know where I'm at. I know what I'm doing. I know when the ball doesn't go where I want it to go what went wrong, and I can fix it. It's a good feeling. Last year, the wheels were spinning and I couldn't figure it out. It was tough."
Lester said he knew his velocity was down last season, but wasn't sure of the reason. He thought that eventually his mechanics would click. Now he's not sure if the problems stemmed from the cancer, or if they were mechanical issues.
He left last night for Pawtucket, R.I., set to join the PawSox for the last game of their homestand before traveling to Ottawa. He would be happy if he could progress with every start, gradually increasing his pitch count to where it should be for a healthy pitcher. Mostly, he wants to make sure he won't suffer a relapse of the forearm cramping, something that would stretch his time away from pitching to an untenable four to six weeks, rather than the two he missed this time.
So, he was asked, when would he prefer to return to Boston? What would be his timetable?
"Tomorrow," Lester said. "But that's not going to happen. Since the season started, I've wanted to be here, but obviously, they've got a plan and their biggest concern is my health, not only with my arm but my overall health, and I understand that. They want to take it slow and get the pitch count up. Hopefully, this time we can do that without any problems again and go from there."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.