Boston's future is hardly dim

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The last time the Boston Red Sox lost a Game 7, to the New York Yankees in the 2003 American League Championship Series

, within days CEO Larry Lucchino was meeting in a New York hotel room with Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks and general manager John Hart, discussing a possible trade for Alex Rodriguez.

That deal, of course, never came to pass – if it had, Jon Lester, who pitched gallantly but lost Game 7 to the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1 on Sunday night, would be wearing a Rangers uniform today, and Madonna might still be married.

But that winter, the Red Sox hired a new manager, Terry Francona, traded for an ace, Curt Schilling, and signed a free-agent closer, Keith Foulke. The message was unmistakable, and would be reinforced in all the subsequent moves (trading Nomar Garciaparra; allowing Pedro Martinez and Johnny Damon to walk; trading for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell among the myriad others) Red Sox GM Theo Epstein and Co. would make: Change is an essential component of success, especially for ultimate success.

That approach has resulted in two World Series titles in four seasons and a bid for another that was thwarted by the Rays, a team now marked as the rising power in the American League East since they've vanquished the Red Sox and Yankees.

The Red Sox acknowledged the Rays' superiority in this series. "I know you never really say the better team won and all that stuff," said Dustin Pedroia, whose first-inning home run Sunday accounted for Boston's only run, "but in October, the best team always wins, and they beat us.

"We just ran out of magic."

But no one doubts for a moment that the Red Sox, who advanced this far despite major injuries to Lowell, David Ortiz, J.D. Drew and Beckett (incidentally, the four highest-paid players still on their roster) and a contentious divorce from Manny Ramirez, will be reloaded and as formidable as ever come next spring.

And the Rays, despite the splendor of B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria and David Price and Garza, don't hold a monopoly on talented kids.

"This is going to sound weird coming from me, because I'm in the same boat," said Lester, who gave up just three runs in seven innings but was outdueled by Matt Garza, "but we've got a lot of youth that learned a lot this year. There are some veterans who are going to come back, and depending on where we go this offseason, some veterans we're going to pick up along the way. But I don't see why we're not in this position every year for a long time."

Lester, who turns 25 in January

, won 16 games this season

, threw a no-hitter and established himself as one of the premier young left-handers in the game. He looks around the clubhouse, sees how the homegrown players are increasingly occupying key positions in the organization – Jonathan Papelbon and Justin Masterson, Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis and Jed Lowrie, Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden in the pipeline – and celebrates how the organization's philosophy has changed since he was drafted by the previous regime in 2002.

"I think the coolest thing is not what they come up here and do, but that the organization now is giving us the chance," Lester said. "When I first got drafted, it was a joke. Everybody kept saying, 'You're just going to be traded, don't get used to being here, you're just going to be traded.' Well, yeah, I almost was traded twice. I'm very glad it didn't happen. To be a part of this group is unbelievable."

The Red Sox thought about trading Lester last winter for Johan Santana and decided against it. That doesn't mean Epstein won't use prospects to achieve his desired goals this winter, whether it is to land an established pitcher (Jake Peavy or Matt Cain?) or their catcher of the future, but the emergence of a new generation of Red Sox players underscores the GM's commitment to build from within.

"We'll be fine," Pedroia said. "We've got a lot of good players on our team. Pitching is obviously the key, and we have that. Everyone in our division is going to get better and so are we. Obviously, we're looking forward to playing these guys [the Rays] for a long time, because they're going to be good for a long time."

There is obvious age on the Red Sox roster, some hefty contracts, and injury concerns. Lowell, who underwent hip surgery, will be 35 next season.

Drew (back), Ortiz (wrist) and another injured veteran, Julio Lugo (quadriceps), will be 33. Youkilis turns 30 in March.

Beckett, who had issues with his elbow and oblique muscle, enters the last year of a three-year deal that pays him $10.5 million next season; the club holds an option of $12 million on him for the 2010 season – assuming he is restored to full health, an extension will be on the docket in coming months.

"Crazy, man," Ortiz said. "I've been here six years, and this is the first year I've really been bothered by injury. I tried to fight back. I tried to work, man. I tried my best. It's not going to be roses and flowers all the time. Bad things happen. You learn from it.

"[But] I'm pretty sure Beckett will be ready to go next year. Mikey Lowell. Julio Lugo. Myself. And most of the time, [the Red Sox] go into the offseason and get some help, which everybody needs because everybody gets stronger.

"Now we've got a new team in the East. They have a lot of talented players. They played amazing this year. They did a great job, those kids, man. They deserve to be where they are."

Epstein addressed one need for 2009 back at the trading deadline, when he acquired Jason Bay in the deal for Ramirez, once it became clear that Ramirez had little interest in coming back and the Sox were through placating him. Falling short this season without him obviously raises the question of how much he was missed.

Manager Terry Francona indirectly revealed how he felt when he said that despite the disappointment of losing, "this is probably the funnest couple months maybe I've ever had."

Those were Manny-free months, of course. Ortiz had a different response. Miss Manny?

"Of course," he said. "You know Manny is the kind of guy who knows how to get it done. No problem. Manny is one of the best hitters in the game. Who wouldn't miss Manny? I mean, I'm not going to lie to you."

The Red Sox hold a perpetual option on Tim Wakefield; at 42,

and with the knuckleballer's shoulder issues each of the last two seasons, that becomes a trickier decision. Mike Timlin will be gone; so will Schilling, who did not pitch at all this season and eventually had shoulder surgery. The Red Sox rotation is strong with a healthy Beckett, Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka, but they will be in the market for another starter, though it is highly unlikely they'll be in the mix for CC Sabathia.

It would surprise no one if the Red Sox try to lock up Pedroia, Papelbon, Lester and Youkilis with multiyear deals. Their biggest roster decision involves Jason Varitek, their captain and catcher. Varitek hit a big home run to help the Red Sox win Game 6; it was his only hit of the series. The Red Sox left six men on base in the last three innings; Varitek struck out twice.

Asked if this might have been his last game with the Red Sox, Varitek's voice broke.

"I'd rather not talk about it," he said, turning away.

Lester said it was hardly his place to advise Epstein what to do but didn't hesitate to say what he would do if asked.

"Sign him," he said. "Obviously having an offensive catcher is a bonus, but I think what he does behind home plate, especially for the young guys and all the other pitchers, and what he does in the clubhouse is priceless.

"It's priceless. It really is. I hope he comes back. I really do, not only for myself but for this organization. He's Mr. Red Sox. He is what exemplifies the Red Sox: work ethic, fighting till the end, never giving up. That's priceless for me."

Lester was the winning pitcher when the Red Sox completed their sweep of the Colorado Rockies in last year's World Series. Sunday night, he watched another young lefty, Rays rookie Price, disappear at the bottom of a joyous scrum.

"This is another building block in our development on the big-league level," Lester said. "You have to sometimes come to realize that it's not always going to be peaches and cream. It's not always going to be winning the World Series, and top of the world.

"You're going to have your ups and downs. Now guys have been in this position, and we've experienced what it's like to lose. We'll see how we respond to this, myself included."