CLEVELAND - As the emotions washed over him, Jon Lester stood on the mound and squeezed the baseball tightly in his left hand.
This was the moment, his moment.
Staring at Boston catcher Jason Varitek's target, Lester disregarded the fluttering in his stomach, rocked into his windup and fired his first pitch - a called strike, the one he had dreamed of making for 11 months.
Last night, Lester crowned a courageous comeback from cancer with a victory.
The young pitcher, whose rookie season ended suddenly when he was diagnosed with a treatable form of lymphoma, pitched six innings to lead the Red Sox to a 6-2 win over the Cleveland Indians.
"I figured the day would come," Lester said. "I just didn't know when. It's just nice to be back."
While his parents sat on the edges of their seats near Boston's dugout, Lester allowed two runs and five hits to easily handle the Indians, the team with the AL's best home record.
Lester's journey back couldn't have had a better checkpoint.
"It was supposed to be his night," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "He just really competes."
The 23-year-old left-hander had been in the midst of a stellar first season when a visit to the doctor for back pain resulted in a startling find that threatened his life and stunned the Red Sox.
Lester was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma just days after he improved to 7-2 with a win over the Los Angeles Angels on Aug. 23.
Over the next months, Lester would undergo six chemotherapy sessions that eventually eradicated the disease. Still, there would be other hurdles to overcome as the Red Sox cautiously handled his return.
But in the opener of a four-game series, Lester showed the same form that made him instantly popular at Fenway Park, where he is certain to have another emotional game when he finally pitches there again.
Lester was relieved to be back in the big leagues, knowing how quickly it can all be taken away. He was declared cancer-free by doctors in December but must still have periodic checkups to make sure the disease hasn't returned.
"I'm just trying to put it behind me and move on and just go back to pitching and not worry about things," he said. "But right now every three months I have to go back and get that reality check. Hopefully we can put it behind us and just win some games."
Coco Crisp went 4-for-5 and scored three runs for Boston, which jumped to a 5-0 lead in the second off Jake Westbrook (1-6).
Manny Ramirez had two RBIs as the Red Sox became the majors' first team to reach 60 wins.
Grady Sizemore hit a two-run homer for the Indians.
The sight of Lester walking to the mound drew a standing ovation from pockets of Boston fans scattered throughout Jacobs Field, a ballpark he didn't get to pitch in during his abbreviated first season.
Any nervousness for Lester may have been soothed by his teammates giving him a 4-0 lead before he threw a pitch.
"That definitely helps," he said. "That eases any pitcher's mind getting four in the first. It makes it a little easier to go out there and throw strikes."
Lester breezed through the first two innings, getting a double play after hitting Ryan Garko opening the second.
In the third, Sizemore connected for a two-run homer off Lester, who was in trouble again in the fourth.
The Indians loaded the bases with one out but Lester broke Josh Barfield's bat on a comebacker that he bobbled before throwing home to force Garko. With Sizemore up again, Lester's mom, Kathie, couldn't watch as her son battled Cleveland's leadoff hitter.
When Lester finally blew a fastball past Sizemore for strike three to end the threat, his father, John, and Kathie jumped up and pumped their fists in celebration. However, she quickly sat back down and resumed her doubled-up position, seemingly afraid to watch anymore.
Lester said having his parents on hand made his return more special.
"It meant a lot," he said. "They've been through a lot. It was a long offseason, so it was good to have them here to enjoy the moment."
"Wow, it's a great story," knuckleballer Tim Wakefield said. "It's been a long road for him."
Lester's comeback has inspired the Red Sox, who were marveling at his composure and maturity long before he began chemotherapy.
Lester, who became the first Red Sox rookie lefty to win his first five decisions, had eased into Boston's rotation when cancer imperiled his young life. But by December, he was throwing again and he showed up at training camp two weeks before pitchers and catchers were due.
Although he appeared ready, the Red Sox decided to bring Lester along slowly, allowing him to pitch in the minors for more than three months before recalling him yesterday from Triple-A Pawtucket.
Lester's return figured to be an emotional one for his immediate family and those who love him for the beloved "B" on his cap.
"This isn't even about baseball," Curt Schilling said. "It just doesn't get any better the way a guy like that comes back to us. It's about family. The big thing is he's a great human being and that makes it an even better story. That wasn't your run-of-the-mill DL stint."
NOTES: Red Sox DH David Ortiz missed his third straight game after injuring his left shoulder on a slide Friday. Ortiz hit off a tee before the game and plans to take batting practice today. "Every day it feels better," he said. Ortiz noted that he got hurt trying to stretch a single by challenging the arm of Chicago right fielder Jermaine Dye. "I've run on him two times and both times I was out, and both times I got hurt," he said. ... Garko extended his hitting streak to 16 games. He's batting .463 over the span. ... Manny Delcarmen pitched three innings for his first career save. ... The Red Sox stopped a six-game road losing streak.41.50436 -81.69046