04/22/07 8:45 PM ET
Notes: Lester's return approaching
Physically strong, lefty may rejoin Red Sox by early May
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
Lester is so close to being back in a Major League uniform, he can practically taste it. He came back to Fenway Park on Sunday so he could throw a side session in front of manager Terry Francona and pitching coach John Farrell. It was also a nice reward for Lester, who is nearing the end of his Minor League rehab trail.
"It's a little weird right now, just because I'm leaving [Monday]," said Lester. "Short-lived visit, but it's definitely nice, and we get to see the Yankees play. It will be a good night."
After pitching four times for Class A Greenville, Lester is set to pitch for Triple-A Pawtucket at Rochester on Wednesday. Then, he'll pitch in Pawtucket against Indianapolis on May 1. The Red Sox aren't finalizing their plans yet, but Lester's next start after that could mark his return to the Major Leagues.
"I hope so," said Lester. "Hopefully, I'll make it through healthy and everything is good to go after that. I don't know what they have in store after those two."
There will have to be a decision made one way or the other at that point, because Lester's 30-day rehab assignment ends on May 4. He will either have to be activated by the Red Sox or optioned to the Minor Leagues at that time.
"We'll revisit how to go from there," said Francona.
But the manager clearly seemed pleased by Lester's progress.
"It's kind of interesting," said Francona. "We haven't seen the kid in a while. He looks strong, his legs look stronger, the ball had good finish on it. He seems excited, as he should be."
Lester can confide now that there were dark times during chemotherapy treatments that playing baseball again didn't seem like the most realistic goal in the world.
"Sometimes this offseason, I didn't think I'd be back pitching, but I just kept pushing myself and trying to get back, and get back to doing what I love to do," said Lester. "Any time you're dealing with something like that, it's a tough thing to come back from, let alone come back and play baseball. I was just fortunate enough to beat it early and to get back to doing this and having fun."
Physically, Lester feels great.
"I feel strong, feel healthy," said Lester. "The other night, I didn't have any problems with my legs giving way later in the game. I feel good, really. I feel about as normal as I can be."
Considering where Lester has come from, normal is about the most gratifying word imaginable.
Coco a late scratch: Just when Coco Crisp seemed to be getting hot, he got sidetracked by an injury. Less than an hour before Sunday's game, Crisp was taken out of the lineup because of tightness in his left oblique. Wily Mo Pena started in Crisp's place.
Crisp has eight hits in his last 20 at-bats. What has the difference been?
"Getting hits -- that's really all he needed to do," Francona said. "It seems like he went through a span where he was 0-2 every time he went up there. Then he'd hit a ball hard and it got caught, then he wouldn't. But usually, if you're consistent enough, hits will come, one way or another."
Okajima stepping up: Lefty reliever Hideki Okajima has clearly pitched himself into a more prominent spot in the Boston bullpen. Francona used him in crucial situations both Friday and Saturday against the Yankees.
After giving up a home run on Opening Day in Kansas City on the first pitch he threw as a Major Leaguer, Okajima has been unscored on in his last seven outings.
"He's been throwing the ball very well," Francona said. "He's been going more to a changeup. His breaking ball, because of the weather, I don't think he has the feel yet that he will. But his changeup, he's getting so much confidence. He's like all players -- you start having success and you get confident."
Manny due for breakout: The Sox were hoping that Manny Ramirez's dramatic homer on Thursday in Toronto would get him on one of those hot streaks his legend has been built on. Thus far, that has not taken place. Ramirez went 1-for-7 in the first two games against the Yankees.
Still, Francona is comforted by the swings Ramirez (.193, one homer, eight RBIs) is taking.
"There's been times before when Manny has started out slow and you could go, 'Wow, he's scuffling to find it.' He doesn't look like that to me right now," said Francona. "Manny is such a good hitter that he's one of the few guys around that he knows he's going to hit. I think some of us used to tell ourselves we were going to hit. He knows he's going to hit. To know you're that good, to be that confident, to not have to bluff your way through it, is special."
On deck: Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield (2-1, 1.35 ERA) will face Tomo Ohka (0-2, 7.02 ERA) for the second time in less than a week on Monday. Wakefield hopes for the same results as last time, when he beat Ohka and the Blue Jays, 4-1. First pitch at Fenway Park is slated for 7:05 p.m. ET.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.