Now, finally, after nine years as teammates, there are two paths divergent.
The careers of Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester have been entwined seemingly ever since the two met when the pitcher committed to play college ball with Pedroia at Arizona State. Though Lester never joined the Sun Devils, signing with the Sox after being taken in the second round of the 2002 draft, he soon was paired with the middle infielder after Pedroia was taken by the Sox in the second round of the 2004 draft.
From there, the two have spent almost all of their professional careers together: High-A Sarasota in 2004, Double-A Portland in 2005, Triple-A Pawtucket in 2006 with their major league debuts taking place that year, meaningful contributors to the Red Sox' World Series in 2007, franchise cornerstones by 2008, with both signing long-term contract extensions as 25-year-olds that delayed the onset of free agency.
There have been forks in the career paths of the two players, but usually, they've been subtle or brief. Until now.
On Tuesday, prior to the Red Sox' 6-2 victory over the Rays, word circulated that Pedroia and the Red Sox had reached agreement on a seven-year contract extension that will keep the second baseman in Boston for what may well be the rest of his playing career. And from Lester's vantage point, the extension of Pedroia represented a landmark of considerable significance for the organization and his teammate. This was the first time that Lester has seen one of his teammates sign not just a long-term deal covering his arbitration-eligible years but one that covers the next phase of the player's career.
"It's great to see," Lester said. "I think the biggest thing with it is, the Red Sox have never really signed homegrown guys to long-term deals. For a guy like that, we all know he's the face of the franchise and everyone looks to him to get things going here and to keep things going. I think that's just a big statement by the Red Sox that, hey, this is what we're going to build the next nine years around, is this guy. I think that speaks volumes for Pedroia and speaks volumes for the Red Sox."
Last year or even two years ago, it seemed fair to speak in the same sentence about possible extensions for Lester -- whose five-year, $30 million deal with a team option runs through 2014 -- and Pedroia, whose original six-year, $41 million deal runs through 2014 and featured a team option for 2015. Pedroia was the proverbial heart of the Red Sox, while Lester was the unquestioned anchor of the pitching staff, the 200-innings-a-year, top-of-the-rotation linchpin.
But while Pedroia has largely sustained his production through a slew of hand injuries in 2012-13, continuing to perform at a level that earned him All-Star accolades this year, Lester has seen his career go in a different direction. After his 9-14 season with a 4.78 ERA in 2012, he is now -- after an impressive 6 1/3-inning effort against the Rays on Tuesday in which he struck out eight, walked none and allowed two runs -- 9-6 with a 4.50 ERA in 2013.
It is a performance that led to a blunt self-assessment when Lester was asked if he and the Red Sox have had any conversations this year about the possibility of a contract extension.
"No. I've got to pitch better," he said candidly. "I think we're in different situations. I think we're in obviously different situations. He had a few more years on his deal. Being a pitcher is a little bit different. We'll see. But I've got to pitch better."
Pedroia has demonstrated the ability to adapt to different physical and on-field challenges and produce. He continues to be a constant on-base presence even when dealing with elements such as torn ligaments in his thumb. And, of course, he continues to display dazzling defensive skill.
For Lester, the adaptation to different stuff remains something of a work in progress. Still, there are signs that he is starting to make some meaningful adjustments that could pay dividends and restore his performance to more familiar career results.
For most of his career and most of this year, Lester has leaded heavily on his cutter, particularly in two-strike counts. He used the pitch -- an overpowering option at many stages of his career -- in 44 percent of two-strike counts against lefties and 36 percent of two-strike counts against righties through his first 19 starts.
But he's virtually shelved the pitch as a two-strike offering in his last two starts. He didn't throw his cutter once in a two-strike count on Tuesday against the Rays, instead relying on his fastball, changeup and curveball.
"I think that we’re trying to just go after hitters a little more with fastball and I think the league is starting to see that with two strikes, the cutter is a great pitch for him so we’re trying to pick and choose times to do that," said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. "I think the more he uses it early in the count, it gets hitters off balance. In the past we used it mainly late in the count so using it early in the count kind of gets them off of that. The league is starting to change and adjust to him so in return he’s got to adjust to them."
Lester insisted that he's not going to abandon the cutter as a two-strike weapon. Still, he acknowledged the need to adjust his mix at a time when the pitch hadn't been getting the same results as had become customary in the earlier stages of his career, particularly through 2011.
"Andy Pettitte's done it for 19 years," Lester said of leaning on the cutter. "I'm not going to shy away from my strength. That defeats the purpose of me going out there and competing if I'm going to throw like a Jamie Moyer and be a fastball-changeup guy. You've got to be able to throw all four or five pitches and mix them up. You can't just obviously go fastball-cutter. We just have to constantly make those adjustments to different teams. There are going to be nights where I have a wipeout slider/cutter and there it is. But there are going to be nights where you have to battle with it and execute."
That is what happened on Tuesday, with Lester delivering one of his best performances in the last two months. Still, the start -- in which both Lester and manager John Farrell said it looked as if the pitcher had benefited from extra rest -- did not occur in isolation. Despite a 1-2 record and 4.01 ERA, there have been some promising signs for Lester in his four starts in July, foremost his 23 strikeouts and six walks in 24 2/3 innings.
"I've made strides in the right direction, whether it be adjustments, whether it be executing pitches," said Lester. "I just have to keep pounding those things away and worry about executing the next pitch, don't worry about my next start that night. Worry about tonight tonight, and we'll figure out what we've got to do from there tomorrow."
The significance of Lester for the Sox looms large, of course. Even through his struggles, he's remained an important source of innings to the Sox, but at a time when Clay Buchholz still doesn't have an estimated return date to the rotation, the team needs Lester to be a familiar stabilizing presence.
He looked the part on Tuesday. In a game where first place in the AL East was up for grabs against the hard-charging Rays, Lester limited the damage to two solo homers on a night when he was otherwise in control throughout. For the Sox, it was a significant sign.
"You never want to diminish any start, but again, where we are in the standings, where they are, knowing we're still only in July but still, this was a big game for us tonight," said manager John Farrell. "For him to come out and respond and take control of the game as he did, very encouraging."
If Lester can continue to show down the stretch that such performances are regularly within his grasp, then perhaps the subject of an extension beyond the Sox' team option for 2014 will gain relevance. The left-hander would love nothing more than to have precisely that conversation, though he recognizes that the team's desire to approach him is not necessarily something he can dictate.
The most important thing he can do is to resemble in results the pitcher who got off to a dominating start this year. If that happens, then the conversations about his future will be filled with a sense of possibility rather than resignation.
"If [the Red Sox] come to us, if they had an idea or want to talk about it, like I've said from Day 1, I don't see myself playing for another organization. I don't want to play for another organization," said Lester. "We'll definitely sit down, listen and talk, and see where it goes from there. Right now, we've got a long way to go this year and we'll see what happens."