When the subject of the Red Sox’ $70 million contract offer to Jon Lester initially cropped up in a recent radio interview, the tone in team president Larry Lucchino’s voice relayed his reluctance to touch the issue.
It was like a glowing orange eye on a stove-top burner.
“Man,” he said. “You know we don’t discuss negotiations on the radio no matter how reasonable your question may seem. I think it’s a mistake to discuss the status of ongoing negotiations as it is a mistake to get fixated on an opening offer.”
The topic was sensitive, but so was the timing.
The Red Sox were just four days removed from a 10-game losing streak. Chained to a cinderblock at the bottom of the division, they had just started to U-turn with three straight wins in Atlanta.
The clubhouse focus was on stringing wins together, not contracts.
But when he was asked if the sides would talk during the season, Lucchino said, “I certainly expect so.” He added that they had talked since spring training.
Whenever the question has floated Lester’s way this season, he’s insisted that the matter will take care of itself whenever the time is right and that he didn’t want it to be a distraction.
At no point in his 11 starts this season had Lester appeared to go to the mound with any of those thoughts on his mind.
And with the Red Sox looking to tie a bow on a three-game series sweep of the Rays and extend their season-high win streak to seven Sunday at Fenway Park, his focus again was singular.
He allowed just four hits, issued just one walk, and racked up 12 strikeouts, handcuffing the Rays in a 4-0 win.
The Sox matched their longest streak from a year ago, when they won seven straight in April and rode the momentum to the World Series.
That team never spent a day under .500. This team, now two games under .500 at 27-29, is trying to gradually pull itself out of a hole.
That, to Lester, is the most urgent priority.
“I think right now, obviously, with us playing good baseball and us focused on what we need to do today, I think that’s where we need to stay,” he said. “The contract talks will come at the right time and right now, we need to worry about focusing on what we need to do tomorrow to win and not let this be a distraction for anybody in the clubhouse.
“That time will come. Whether it’s tomorrow, I don’t know. Whether it’s in the offseason, I don’t know. We’ll figure that out as we go. I just play baseball. That’s all I do, all I focus on.”
With David Ross behind the plate, Lester quickly found a comfort zone. He struck Ben Zobrist out on three pitches to start the game, then after walking Desmond Jennings and giving up a single to Evan Longoria, he retired the next 12 batters, striking out six of them and only letting one ball get out of the infield.
“He was outstanding,” said manager John Farrell. “When you consider four pitches for strikes, he was pitching to a good pitcher’s zone, but still he executed a number of pitches. Today might’ve been one of the better curveballs he’s had on the year. A good swing-and-miss to his fastball and he continues to roll.
“He’s establishing such good rhythm, a lot of strikes, and when you’ve got that assortment to go to, he can keep a hitter on his heels.”
The relationship between Lester and Ross is at a finish-each-other’s-sentence level of simpatico.
“They’re on the same page,” Farrell said. “There’s such good rapport between them. They can almost anticipate the next pitch. So there’s a lot of confidence when Jon throws to him.”
With his fastball clicking, Lester felt that much more comfortable chasing it with his curveball, going to it 21 times, throwing 13 for strikes.
He drew 15 swinging misses, bouncing his curve in the dirt if he needed to, knowing the Rays would chase.
He got all the run support he needed from Brock Holt, who continued his scorched-earth hitting streak (4 for 4 with an MLB-record-tying four doubles and two RBIs) even as he moved across the infield to play first base for the first time in his career.
Fresh off a call-up Saturday night, the Sox’ fast-tracked third base prospect Garin Cecchini left his fingerprints on the win, too, with a run-scoring double in the seventh inning for both his first hit and RBI.
After going the first 51 games of the season without holding an opponent scoreless, the Sox have shut out two teams in the past week.
The Sox now set out on nine-game trip through Cleveland, Detroit, and Baltimore having gained back some of the ground they lost in the first two months of the season, but knowing there’s still more to make up.
“We’ve got to worry about tomorrow,” Lester said. “That’s kind of been the focus here lately. As far as these guys in this clubhouse, ‘What do we need to do today to succeed?’ We’ve been going out there and doing it. We’re not worried about streaks, not worried about anything like that. Just playing good, clean baseball and we’ve done that the past week or so. That’s all we can keep doing.”