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Lester trusts it's not beginning of end

3/31/2014

BALTIMORE -- This is what happens when you’ve turned your career around as Jon Lester has.

All those painful months of recriminations, disappointment and failure become necessary parts of a larger narrative.

“I wouldn’t change any of it now,’’ said Lester, who will start his fourth consecutive Opening Day Monday afternoon against the Baltimore Orioles.

“I learned so much about myself, my teammates, what I needed to do. It made me a better pitcher, and a better man.’’

A year ago at this time, Lester was facing a potential endgame with the Red Sox. The Sox had not exercised his contract option and had little incentive to do so, Lester having stumbled badly, first in the September collapse of 2011, and then with a career-worst performance in 2012, when he posted a 4.82 ERA and failed to win at least 15 games for the first time since he became a full-time starter in 2008.

A year later, Lester is facing another potential endgame with the Sox, under far more favorable circumstances for the pitcher. He is entering his free-agent year after a career-validating October performance that makes him eligible for one of those nine-figure contracts that will not only be life-changing for him and his immediate family, but for generations of Lesters to come. And the leverage now belongs to him.

Lester has insisted all along that he hopes it doesn’t get to the point that he tests the market. He wants to stay with the Sox, he says, and finish his career with Boston, and will sacrifice a few dollars to do so if that’s what it takes. The Sox say they want Lester to remain in their uniform. The club drafted him and saw him through his successful fight with cancer, and Lester has celebrated two World Series titles with the Sox.

But days ago, GM Ben Cherington announced that negotiations on an extension had been placed on “pause.” Chances are, it truly is just that, a temporary interruption in what ultimately will be a successful negotiation. It took the Sox until after the All-Star break last year to finalize an extension with Dustin Pedroia, and the second baseman is represented by the same agents who work for Lester -- Sam and Seth Levinson.

In the meantime, Lester acknowledged Sunday, the inability to reach an agreement by the soft but hoped-for deadline of Opening Day cannot be ignored. But neither does it have to ruin anybody’s summer.

“I wouldn’t say it completely leaves your mind,” Lester said. “I mean, it’s kind of like having the elephant in the room. We all know the circumstances that are there this year.

“I would like to think I’m good at dealing with outside things. It’s something that’s going to be there. There are going to be questions, and I’ll have to give answers. But it’s something we’ll deal with along the way.”

Lester, who described himself as a “black-and-white thinker,” said by maintaining a narrow focus on when he has to pitch and preparing for his starts, he is able to set aside the larger issues raised by his contract extension.

“Yes, disappointed it didn’t get done, but we all have to be realistic about it and understand that it’s a process and it’s going to take some time,” he said. “We’re all in a good place. Let those guys deal with it, and I’ll play baseball.”

And Lester, while recognizing that winning four games in October, including both of his World Series starts against the Cardinals, elevated his stature, likes to remind folks that he was no novice at this hardball business.

“I was a pretty good pitcher before then,’’ he said. “It was nothing that surprised me. I expect that of myself every time. The confidence is there. It’s something that has never wavered for me, but anytime you have success on a stage like that, you can always put that in your back pocket.’’

With any luck, there will be a new contract to stick in that pocket, too. Motivation?

“If I use that as motivation, I’ve got problems,’’ he said. “That’s not what motivates me to go out and pitch better. What drives me is to be the best pitcher I can be and go out and help my team win.’’