Jon Lester will take the ball as the starting pitcher. Jacoby Ellsbury will lead off. Dustin Pedroia will be the on-field embodiment of determination for a championship.
That trio will stand in a shared spotlight in the middle of the field for the Red Sox as they arrive at Game 1 of the World Series against the Cardinals on Wednesday. If those cornerstones of a championship ambition sound familiar, they should. After all, six years ago, all of those same players were homegrown anchors of the team's last appearance (and triumph) in the 2007 Fall Classic.
The images of that time remain vivid. Ellsbury and Pedroia stormed Coors Field in memorable fashion, wreaking havoc in historic fashion. Lester took the mound in the Game 4 World Series clincher and carved up Colorado's hitters to earn the Series-clinching victory.
That the three of them are now once again competing for a title together merits some appreciation, given the very real possibility that this run will represent the last hurrah for a group that seemed to offer the basis for enormous aspirations those six autumns ago. The Red Sox were in a remarkable position at the time, having just won one World Series with a wave of young players -- led by Pedroia, Lester and Ellsbury -- that seemed capable of reinforcing title hopes for years to come.
"You think, 'This is easy. Why can't we do this every year?' " Lester recalled of the conclusions he drew after 2007. "You get on that run and it seems easy when you're going through it -- got here, did it, we swept them, party, Duck Boats, the whole gig, and it was like, 'Oh, man -- let's do this every year.' "
The exuberance was not limited to players. The baseball world at large thought that the Sox were primed for a run of remarkable success, as did the team's front office -- a fact that was underscored by a fascinating and stark choice the winter following that 2007 World Series.
The Sox had just won. Pedroia, the 2007 Rookie of the Year, had already assumed an unalterable place in the Sox organization. But Ellsbury and Lester were in a slightly less well-defined position.
Ellsbury was a force in his cups of coffee that year, hitting .353/.394/.509 with three homers and nine steals in 127 regular-season plate appearances, then emerging as a difference-maker in the playoff lineup. Still, the Sox enjoyed some outfield depth at the major league level (where Manny Ramirez, Coco Crisp and J.D. Drew all represented returning starters) and in the minors (where players like Brandon Moss had shown considerable promise).
Lester, who was continuing to rebuild strength as he moved further from his treatment for and recovery from cancer, was a career 11-2 in 27 regular-season games but with a 4.68 ERA. As impressive and aggressive as he'd been in the World Series clincher, there remained questions about whether he would emerge as an efficient pitcher, capable of attacking the strike zone with enough frequency to dominate opponents with his stuff.
Both Lester and Ellsbury were, to be sure, elite prospects. But they were prospects rather than sure things. Johan Santana? He was another story, and presented the Sox with a choice about how to construct a team capable of making a run at more titles.
The Twins were dangling the left-hander with a pair of Cy Young awards on his resume. In talks with the Sox, Minnesota asked for both Ellsbury and Lester as part of the return package, along with Jed Lowrie and Justin Masterson. There were some in the Sox organization who believed strongly that the team should pull the trigger.
A message was written down by one member of the baseball ops team: "Santana = dynasty."
But there was a rebuttal from other members of the baseball ops team: "Not doing this deal = dynasty."
The Sox engaged the Twins throughout the winter meetings. Much of their dialogue related to an effort to see if Minnesota would be open to striking a deal centered around just Ellsbury or just Lester, but not both. The Twins would not consider such a package.
The Sox debated the matter internally, but the organization tended to side heavily with the "not doing this deal = dynasty" perspective. While they continued to engage the Twins -- both to keep their options open, and in hopes of ensuring that the cost of a potential deal for the Yankees would remain high -- one person familiar with the talks said that the Sox never had any intention of striking a deal for Santana, instead viewing their conversations with the Twins as an exercise in walking to the end of the diving board to get a sense for its true height, but without plans to jump in the water.
The team ran through long-term projections for each player. Ellsbury seemed like a Kenny Lofton type with more power. There was a feeling that Lester could have Andy Pettitte's career. Though his statistical track record did not yet suggest as much, team officials -- including John Farrell, then the pitching coach, who believed Lester was a front-of-the-rotation starter in waiting -- thought he had elite stuff.
Masterson (back-end starter or very good reliever) and Lowrie (offensive middle infielder who could get on base) also both projected to be valuable contributors, but the decision about Santana was really about the feeling that the combination of Pedroia, Ellsbury and Lester, along with the veterans already on the roster, gave the Sox as good a chance as any team in baseball over a five- to seven-year period to sustain a great run.
"It felt like we were in position to be good for a while," said current Sox GM Ben Cherington, who was the team's VP of player personnel in 2007. "It’s one of the great things about baseball that things can change quickly. It’s hard to write anything in pen more than about a week out. But yes, we felt good about the direction of the organization at that time, definitely."
The optimism that prevailed after the 2007 championship was left, in many ways, unfulfilled. The Sox had a championship-caliber team in 2008 but fell to the Rays in the ALCS that season in seven games, a fact that Lester recalls vividly with still-fresh disappointment.
"We were right there -- one pitch away. Pitch to [Willy] Aybar -- two-run homer," Lester recalled of the unlikely blast that represented the Sox' margin of defeat in their 3-1 Game 7 loss. "Seven innings, three runs, [Matt] Garza pitches better than me, it is what it is. Did I have my plan? Yeah. Did I execute it? All but one pitch. Left a hanging cutter, and that's his bat speed, bat path and he hits a home run. I can't take it back."
The team still thought it was well-positioned for 2009, but even after the trade deadline move for Victor Martinez, the Sox got swept out of the playoffs by the Angels in the ALDS. In 2010, the team -- after adding more than $100 million in commitments to John Lackey, Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron -- was ravaged beyond repair by injuries. In 2011, the Sox added Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, had the best team in baseball for five months and then blew apart in September. Last season, of course, represented a colossal shipwreck.
Over that span, youthful exuberance was replaced by dawning reality. Championships -- or even the opportunity to compete for them -- were something other than a birthright.
"All the chips have to fall into place. It's not easy to do," said Lester. "You've got to have that special group to do it. Every spring training, you think you do. Then you get into June and you hate each other or you're not playing well or you're playing great but everybody's hurt. All the stars have to align."
For five years, from 2008-12, that alignment proved elusive. There were lessons in the fact that the Red Sox of Lester, Pedroia and Ellsbury hadn't sniffed baseball's pinnacle since 2008.
"You never take for granted what your supposed strengths are because they can change. Things can happen. Never take for granted a team’s position of strength because you always have to be fortifying that to give yourself the best chance to remain successful," said Cherington. "And you need to appreciate it when things are going well. Obviously a lot of hard work goes into it, but there’s an element of luck, too, so you need to appreciate it when it’s going well."
APPRECIATING THE (POTENTIALLY) LAST HURRAH
This time represents just such a moment. Lester and Pedroia and Ellsbury are together once again as the Sox prepare for the World Series, in what may be their final days as teammates.
Their division isn't inevitable, of course. Ellsbury had a dazzling regular season, hitting .298 with a .355 OBP, .426 slugging mark, nine homers and an AL-leading 52 steals while playing elite center field defense. He's been a dynamo during the postseason, hitting .400/.467/.525 with six steals in seven attempts. Based on that performance, the Red Sox could make a run at re-signing Ellsbury to keep the trio together.
"I’ve played with him my whole career. Just because he’s going to be a free agent at the end of the year, it doesn’t mean that will stop," said Pedroia. "I’m pretty sure we’re going to try to sign Jacoby. I’m sure every team wants one of the best center fielders in baseball."
Even so, so long as Ellsbury remains slated to arrive at free agency, there is at least uncertainty about whether this core group -- the one on whom championship visions were based back in 2007 but that is just now playing for a second title together -- will remain intact.
"I feel like I'll be back [in 2014] -- I hope. I think I'm naive to that notion of not coming back. Obviously Pedey will be here till he's dead," Lester said with a laugh, noting that Pedroia is signed through 2021. "With Jacoby, there's that 'what if.'
"You can't get emotionally attached to it just yet. I think you still have to look at it as, this is our goal right now, and then when that gets to that point, worry about it then," Lester continued in thinking about the possibility that the rising core of which he was a part could change this winter. "It's on [Ellsbury's] mind, but at the same time, when he puts his spikes and uniform on, it's, 'Hey, this is the task at hand and this is what I need to do.' It's tough. It's a tough deal. You can't get emotional about it right now."
Ellsbury is perhaps more acutely aware of that than anyone. Shortly after the World Series concludes, he will, for the first time, not be under the contractual control of the Red Sox. Instead, he will have the freedom to examine the market among 30 teams for his services.
On the one hand, he is permitting himself a degree of perspective that he did not possess back in 2007.
"In 2007, everything happened so quick. I got called up, got put on the postseason roster and won a World Series," he recounted. "Everything happened so fast. This year, I think, it's so hard. No matter how quality of a team you have, it is tough to get to this point. I think this year, I'm definitely enjoying it, slowing it down a little bit and definitely enjoying the whole process a little bit."
At media day at Fenway Park on Tuesday, the center fielder reflected upon what it has meant to spend every day of his professional life in a Red Sox uniform, the deep attachment between the region's fans and himself thanks to a minor league upbringing that took him through Lowell, Portland and Pawtucket en route to Boston.
"I'm definitely very fortunate to have been drafted by the Red Sox and played my whole career here. I think that's pretty special," he said.
Yet he is not allowing himself to think in terms of the possibility that these are his final games with the Red Sox. He remains goal-oriented, focused on what is immediately at hand.
"I'm thinking about getting a ring. I'm thinking about going out there, competing, playing as hard as I can, competing with the fellas and getting a ring," he said. "To be on top of your game, you've got to focus on the task at hand, and that's winning a World Series. That's pretty much what everybody's goal, everybody's focus is on, is right now. I think that's what it has to be. It has to be on this team. It has to be on these next maybe seven games. It could be four games. But it's laying it all on the line right now."
There is something familiar in that determination. It carried the Red Sox to a title against the Rockies in 2007, and now the team hopes that it will once again prove worthy of a championship in 2013 against the Cardinals.
The path has been unexpected, but the broader view is nonetheless remarkable. Six years after a bold, precocious statement in Denver, Lester, Pedroia and Ellsbury -- now veterans who are aware and appreciative of what they are trying to accomplish -- still remain at the core of a team competing for a title.
Finally, the wildly talented trio is ready to return to the sport's ultimate stage, seeking to validate that sense of promise and possibility that formed those six Octobers ago.