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Jon Lester steps up as Red Sox’ true ace

There’s always a great debate inside the Red Sox organization as to whether they should re-sign Jon Lester to one of those massive contracts that can run six or seven years at $20 million per season.

There is growing evidence the answer to that question should be yes, after Lester proved he was an ace again in Game 1 of the World Series. Pitted against St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, Lester threw 7 scoreless innings to lead the Red Sox to an 8-1 win Wednesday night.

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Lester, 100-56 (.641) with a 3.76 ERA in the regular season, has now thrown 13 scoreless innings in his two World Series appearances. The other came in 2007, when he hurled 5 innings in the clinching 4-3 win over the Rockies in Game 4. Lester won 15 games this season, pitching more than 200 innings for the fifth time. While the Red Sox will likely pick up his $13 million option for 2014, you can bet a long-term deal will be discussed.

Lester is now 5-4 with a 2.22 ERA in 12 postseason appearances.

While Clay Buchholz may indeed be the team’s most talented pitcher, his injury issues have to be a concern to the Red Sox, who can’t very well let someone like Lester go off into free agency and then depend on Buchholz to be their No. 1 guy, given his history.

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Lester, who beat cancer, has persevered in life and in his career. When it looks like he’s down, he perks back up. He had a horrible September 2011, as did everyone on the Red Sox’ pitching staff, and then it was learned he was a large part of the chicken/beer fiasco with Josh Beckett and John Lackey.

Lester profusely apologized for his actions and moved on with a new resolve.

But not so fast. He had a lost season in 2012, when he didn’t find his mechanics until August, and by then it was way too late to save anything but his self-respect.

Lester always has wanted the responsibility of being the ace, the leader of the staff. He’s got that now without any debate. Time and time again he proves to be that pitcher, win or lose. He beat Tampa Bay in Game 1 of the Division Series, 8-2, throwing 7 innings and allowing two earned runs. He lost Game 1 of the Championship Series to Detroit, 1-0, going 6 innings, allowing six hits and one run. He won Game 5 against the Tigers, 4-1, when he went 5 innings and allowed two runs.

In 27 innings this postseason, Lester has allowed just five earned runs for a 1.67 ERA.

So, the consistency is there. You can count on Lester to give you a solid outing every time out. Is he a shutdown pitcher? Not always, but he was Wednesday, on a night when the Cardinals couldn’t get out of their own way and seemed like a nervous team. Lester exploited all of that, never letting the Cardinals getting untracked.

He produced a 1-2-3 double-play grounder with the bases loaded in the fourth inning, a huge play that allowed him to hold off the Cardinals and pitch deep into the game.

“That was big,” Lester said. “Obviously, with us scoring some early runs I just wanted — especially in the middle innings — to just get some shutdown innings and get the guys back in the dugout. That one got a little bit away from me, but I was fortunate to get a pitch down to [David] Freese and get a ground ball. [David Ross] did a great job making sure we got the big one at home, and then made a good throw to [Mike Napoli].”

The rest was easy. Lester threw his assortment of four-seam fastballs, cutters, and curves. He got called third strikes with the cutter, which he reestablished after the All-Star break.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Lester tipped his cap as left the game in the eighth inning to a standing ovation.

He seems to have developed good chemistry with Ross, who has caught his last six starts. While manager John Farrell always has disliked the idea of a pitcher having a personal catcher, he understands that the relationship is good, so why change it?

“They’ve really developed a good rapport,” said Farrell. “Their ability to read swings and make some adjustments from at-bat to at-bat or each time through the lineup. And we did it the two games in Detroit. So, we’ll stick with that tandem.”

Lester agrees. He said he has nothing against Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but said he’s developed a winning combination with Ross.

“For whatever reason now, Rossy and I are clicking,” Lester said. “That’s nothing against what Salty does behind the plate, and we’ve had plenty of good games together. So, it’s not a matter of I like Rossy better than Salty or vice versa, you know? Just like I said, for whatever reason we’re going good, and John Farrell is gonna ride it out.”

Just as Lester rode out the remainder of the game after the hair-raising fourth inning.

He had breathing room throughout, something he didn’t experience in either start against the Tigers. So, Wednesday night was a breath of fresh air. He just didn’t want to mess it up.

“I think you can go one of two ways — let your guard down and take a deep breath and say, OK, we’ve got a big lead, and not really pay attention to the next inning,” Lester said. “This time of the year you really have to think about winning each inning. And once we scored in the first, go out there and you’ve got to win that inning. You’ve got to put a zero up. Get these guys back in the dugout and get them up to the batter’s box. And we ended up doing that and we ended up scoring a few more runs. And that was big for us, especially against a pitcher like Adam [Wainwright].”

When Farrell came out to get Lester after 112 pitches with two outs in the eighth inning and the score 7-0, the appreciative crowd roared.

He had won every inning. He had dominated the majority of the batters.

He’s 3-1 this postseason, and finally he can say with conviction he is the ace.

One who will be paid accordingly.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.
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