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Jon Lester back to being a stopper, not just a starter

His T-shirt was drenched in the remnants of champagne bottle rockets and beer-can grenades, the Red Sox’ celebratory weapons of choice.

But Jon Lester was more soaked in the moment.

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A large part of him was as proud as anyone else on the field.

When the Red Sox clinched their first division title since 2007 with a Sept. 20 win over the Toronto Blue Jays, two years’ worth of clouds seemed to open up to champagne showers.

A small part of Lester was jealous, though. He had pitched seven innings, earned the 100th win of his career, and guaranteed his sixth trip to the postseason.

But he wanted to pitch all nine.

He wanted to be the one to get the out that sealed it.

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He wanted to be on the mound, at the bottom of the pig pile and at the eye of the euphoric mayhem.

Then, there was the piece of the 29-year-old pitcher that felt redeemed.

Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester pitched eight innings in a 5-1 win against the New York Yankees on Sept. 14.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester pitched eight innings in a 5-1 win against the New York Yankees on Sept. 14.

When the Red Sox collapsed in 2011 — sunken into September quicksand, then swept up in offseason scandal and turmoil — Lester was one of the primary players left standing in the rubble. He was a poster child and one of the fall guys for a clubhouse gone wayward.

When the artillery of blame came his way, he stood in. There was indeed chicken, he said. There was beer, he said. There was irresponsibility. There was a lack of structure.

But what seemed to affect him the most was seeing himself slip away with the season.

“It bothers me because I’m supposed to be a stopper,” he said at the time. “I picked a terrible time to stink. That’s on me.”

The search to rediscover the pitcher who has made three straight Opening Day starts, threw a no-hitter three seasons into his career, has pitched in eight playoff games (including a World Series clincher), has struck out more batters than any other lefthander in franchise history, has started at least 31 games every year since 2008, and has won more games in the majors over that period than any pitchers except Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia.

Lester endured the worst season of his career — a 9-14 campaign in 2012 in which he gave up an astronomic 110 earned runs.

But as he stood at the edge of the Fenway Park infield, dripping wet, he looked like a pitcher who had finally come out the other side.

Standing beside him, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia could tell.

“It was important for him just because he’s been our ace,” Saltalamacchia said. “He’s been our Opening Day starter the past few years and he’s been a guy I think we’ve leaned on. He’s got such high expectations every year coming in, so it’s tough.

“It’s not easy coming in every year with everyone talking about Cy Young this and that. We’re all human, so for him to come in and pitch the way he’s pitched and really just be a backbone and a stable starter, I think that’s one of those things as a catcher you’re proud of and you’re happy for those guys.

“To see him put so much work in, to see him succeed like that, there’s no better feeling.”

Right man for the job

When manager John Farrell announced that Lester (15-8) would start Game 1 of the Division Series, the pros of the decision were obvious. With 42 postseason innings, Lester was playoff-tested. He has pitched in every round except the wild card.

However, this will be the first time he gets to pitch a Game 1 at Fenway Park.

“That will be exciting,” Lester said. “It will be obviously electric. There’s nothing like playoff atmosphere. You can’t duplicate it. You can’t describe it. It’s just a different beast when you step on that mound.

Even though Lester ran off nine straight quality starts before his final outing of the season and posted a 2.57 ERA and 74 strikeouts in his final 13 starts, there was more to the decision than numbers. There’s Lester’s presence.

“When he walks to the mound,” Farrell said, “we feel pretty good about our chances that night.”

The sentiment was echoed throughout the clubhouse.

“When Jon’s on the mound, you’ve got your work cut out for you as an opponent,” said outfielder Jonny Gomes.

Third baseman Will Middlebrooks said he had “all the confidence in the world” with Lester on the mound.

When Lester hit turbulence in June, going 2-2 with a 7.62 ERA, he quickly made adjustments.

“I think in the middle there, he was working on some stuff with his delivery and thinking too much about that and it was causing him to fall behind some guys,” Saltalamacchia said.

“But he’s never changed his mentality. He’s never changed his attack mode. That’s what he is. That’s the kind of pitcher he is. He’s always attacking guys.”

Lester finished with 177 strikeouts (48 fewer than his career-high 225), but the tradeoff was being was on the mound for a team-high 213 innings, never missing a start. For the fifth time in his career, Lester topped 200 innings, and in 16 of his 33 starts, he went seven or more.

“In the past, he was a strikeout guy, and I think he struggled a little bit with that last year, really wondering why,” Saltalamacchia said. “Then we talked about it last year and the focus this year was to attack guys and try and go seven, eight . . . if we can get a nine-inning game in there, that’d be great.

“He’s confident. He feels good. He’s got a good feel for where the ball’s going.”

On a pitching staff experienced in postseason play, Lester is the one they defer to.

“He’s not a talker, he’s a doer,” said catcher David Ross. “He works his tail off. He’s got great preparation. He’s got the mind-set you want. But he’s not a rah-rah, loud, ‘look at me, I’m the leader.’

“He’s just 100 percent lead by example. That’s why I think guys respect him and defer to him a lot, because he knows Boston, he’s been here the longest and knows what those winning teams were like. So you kind of just defer to him.”

Some fun along the way

Lester watched from a distance as the party on the infield lawn unfolded after the clincher, amazed as much by the sight of it as the accomplishment itself.

It felt different from the 2007 world championship season, different from most of the summers he had spent in Boston. They all felt businesslike, he said — “more of a buttoned-down, ‘Hey, this is our job, this is what we’re doing day in, day out.’

“There was some fun along the way, but I feel like the teams in the past were kind of the same approach: ‘Hey, we’ve got another game, let’s win another game, let’s move on, let’s go to the next one.’ ”

This season, he said, the Sox managed to uncork enjoyment along with the champagne.

“This team, it’s just the complete opposite of anything I’ve ever been around,” said Lester. “From the moment you walk in, guys are laughing, cutting up. Everybody’s having fun.

“Then when the time comes for 7 o’clock to roll around, guys roll out there, they do what they need to do, they’re prepared and they play hard. The guys that are on the bench are keeping those guys loose and having fun doing it.”

If he can bottle some of that and save it for the rest of the time in Boston, he will.

“It’s been a joy to be around,” Lester said. “Just being around this market for a couple years, I never thought you could actually do that here, and it’s a pleasant surprise.

“Hopefully we can continue to carry it over for the remainder of the time I’m here, other guys are here, and really just have fun playing the game.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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