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Jon Lester remains focused despite contract issue

Jon Lester struck out seven and walked none in eight strong innings in Game 1 Saturday. Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Jon Lester struck out seven and walked none in eight strong innings in Game 1 Saturday.

There is no distraction, he says. Did you watch the first game Saturday?

Red Sox ace Jon Lester, who’s eligible for free agency at the end of this season, said after Boston’s series against the Yankees last weekend that he didn’t want the well-publicized talks about his contract to affect his teammates. (Earlier in the week, there was a report that the team recently had re-engaged negotiations with Lester’s representation.)

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After Game 1 of the Sox’ doubleheader against the Baltimore Orioles on Saturday at Fenway, he’s more at peace.

“Judging by today,” Lester said after another sterling performance in the Sox’ 3-2 win over the Orioles, “I don’t think it’s much of a distraction.”

Manager John Farrell said before the game that Lester might be having the best season of his career. The pitcher’s performance Saturday did little to change that perception.

Lester (9-7, 2.73 ERA) pitched eight innings, striking out seven and walking none in the no-decision. He allowed only five hits, and the Orioles’ two runs were unearned. In his last five starts he is 3-0 with a 0.96 ERA, 27 strikeouts, and six walks.

“There’s been times throughout his career where he gets on these stretches, and you kind of just give him the ball and get out of the way,” Farrell said. “He’s now into a solid month and a half of elite performance against good lineups, and he continued to do the same here today.”

“That’s as good as I’ve seen Lester in a while,” catcher David Ross said. “He really kept his poise . . . and was a very mature starter today with great stuff.”

It started with the first batter.

Lester struck out right fielder Nick Markakis on three pitches: fastball, fastball, cutter. Five of his seven strikeouts came on heaters, which hovered in the low to mid-90s.

“Fastball command’s been pretty good,” Lester said. “I feel like I’ve gotten the consistency back with my cutter, which has been helpful at times just getting in on righties.”

From there, he mixed in a changeup, curve, and sinker. He moved the ball around the zone well, he said, and induced 13 groundouts.

It could have been 14. In the third inning, nearly escaped from a jam — two on and two out — Lester threw a 1-1 curve to first baseman Steve Pearce. Pearce slapped a grounder to third base, and it seemed a routine field-and-fire for Xander Bogaerts. He bobbled it, though, and the Orioles’ two runners scored. Bogaerts was charged with an error.

Lester ensured the threat ended there — he struck out Nelson Cruz three pitches later to finish the inning — and encouraged the rookie third baseman.

“Sometimes you got to pick your teammates up,” he said. “Sometimes you got to pick yourself up when you make mistakes. That’s just part of baseball.”

After seven innings, Lester had thrown 110 pitches. He walked into the dugout thinking that his day could be over. But Farrell said nothing.

“He seemingly got more efficient in the last couple of innings,” the manager said. “He’s in that gray area — we’re sending him out with [110] pitches to start the eighth inning — but he never really labored at all.”

“That’s what I try to pride myself on,” said Lester, who has thrown more than 100 pitches in 16 of his 18 starts this season. “[The] bullpen knowing coming into one of my starts that, you know, ‘Hey I’m going to go seven or eight innings.’ ”

In the eighth, after he got Cruz to ground into an inning-ending double play — Stephen Drew’s slide and quick flip to Dustin Pedroia, whose throw to first base beat Cruz — Lester pumped his fist.

“That,” Lester said, “was huge for us to get these guys back out to the dugout and give them a chance to score a run.”

Pinch hitters Jonny Gomes and Jonathan Herrera obliged, and minutes later the Red Sox were celebrating another walkoff win.

It was what Lester, even though he didn’t get the win, wanted: His teammates happy, unworried about their ace lefthander’s contract negotiations.

That was clear, too, after the game, when Lester praised Gomes and Herrera and deflected talk about his future.

Gomes said the pitcher has handled it candidly and professionally.

“Contract-negotiating-wise — I can’t really relate,” Gomes said, smiling. “But at the same time everyone can imagine the pressure of that, along with the pressure of just trying to pitch your game and help your team win.

“If there’s a book to be written [about how to deal with it], he’s definitely writing it.”

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