WASHINGTON — Jon Lester won’t soon forget the first Game 1 starting assignment of his big-league career. It was nine years ago in Anaheim, California, and the 24-year-old Red Sox lefty outdueled Angels starter and future teammate John Lackey for seven innings in a 4-1 American League Division Series victory.
But it wasn’t the memory of beating good buddy Lackey that kept bubbling up in Lester’s mind in the days leading up to the Cubs’ National League Division Series matchup against the Nationals. It was the somewhat strange feeling of taking the ball for the opener while veteran Josh Beckett was pushed back into a Game 3 start because of a nagging injury.
‘‘It was kind of like a passing-of-the-torch type of deal,’’ he said.
Yeah, kind of. But not really.
Beckett was only 28, too young to be looking to pass the torch to anybody. Lester, 33 — and loaded to the gills with a $155 million contract — now knows what it’s like to be on the opposite end of this sort of exchange. He took the ball first in the Cubs’ historic run to a World Series title last season. He almost surely would have done it again if not for a muscle in his upper back that could use another day of rest.
Instead, he watched teammate Kyle Hendricks pitch — extraordinarily — in the opener Friday against the Nationals. Not that Lester ever would be anything but happy about that, mind you. But this is the guy who ranks second among active major-leaguers in postseason starts (19) and innings (133‰) and first in strikeouts (117). You’d better believe he was hoping to pitch another Game 1.
‘‘When you get older, it’s harder to match up against the No. 1s,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s nice to kind of take a step back. At the same time, we all have pride. We all want to be that guy.’’
There was some debate heading into Game 1 about who will get the ball in Game 5 if the series goes the distance. Would it be Hendricks again or Game 2 starter Lester on full rest? That debate certainly ought to be moot now after Hendricks’ masterful seven scoreless innings.
‘‘I just look at it as Game 2,’’ Lester said. ‘‘Focus on that, and then whatever happens down the road, you figure it out. . . . I’m not worried about the unknown.’’
Hendricks flummoxed the Nationals’ loaded lineup. What are the odds a Cubs starter can pull that off two nights in a row? Lester will call on his deep well of experience and take his best shot.
‘‘Eliminating damage is a huge thing against this lineup,’’ he said. ‘‘We all know, obviously, they can hit the ball out of the ballpark at a high rate. So keep them on the ground and give our team a chance to field them and throw them out. It sounds simple, but it’s a tough lineup.’’
No doubt, Nationals Park will be rocking Saturday. Just like it was last fall at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and at Progressive Field in Cleveland, right?
‘‘You’ve got different atmospheres,’’ Lester said. ‘‘Stadiums are packed. They are loud. It’s fun. Once you step on that rubber, it’s still 60 feet, 6 inches and you still have to execute a pitch. And you still have to have good at-bats and catch the ball and throw it and run and do all that stuff.’’
Spoken like a guy who has been there before. And speaking of that, know which active pitcher ranks ahead of Lester on the lists of postseason starts and innings? It’s Lackey, ace Cubs reliever (and owner of two career relief appearances).
Sometimes roles change. The good ones can roll with it.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.