ST. PETERSBURG — The fact Ben Zobrist and Drew Sutton's lockers are side by side in the Rays clubhouse is more than fitting.
After all, the two are like family.
They've been linked since they were drafted by Houston in 2004, when they were both the first person the other met in pro baseball. They roomed together the first two spring trainings and lived together in Nashville in the 2005-08 offseasons, as they nearly simultaneously molded into switch-hitting utility players. Sutton was an usher at Zobrist's wedding, Zobrist standing up in Sutton's.
"We became kind of like brothers," Zobrist said.
Though their careers took different paths — Zobrist, 31, a mold-breaking All-Star with a long-term deal and Sutton, 28, a journeyman trying to stick — they followed each other from afar. The two joked about being teammates again, and on May 20, they were reunited when Sutton was acquired by the Rays from the Pirates.
"Just being able to get to experience something like this where you get to play on the same team as one of your best friends, that probably doesn't happen a whole lot," Sutton said. "But it's a pretty cool thing."
• • •
Sutton, an El Dorado, Ark., native, was drafted out of Baylor in the 15th round by the Astros in 2004, nine rounds after Zobrist, a Eureka, Ill., native out of Dallas Baptist University.
But the two were randomly put together as roommates after the draft and joined again during instructional league.
They became fast friends, and when Sutton moved to Nashville in 2005, they lived and worked out together in the offseasons. Sutton said they'd get to a local facility around 10 a.m., take ground balls, hit batting practice off each other. "He was a pitcher in college, so he was probably better," Sutton quipped. "But we had some good battles."
Sutton, 28, laughed as he recounted how the two would go to an indoor soccer field and make up their own games to work on their fielding. They used a pitching machine, one that would swivel, and shoot baseballs toward a soccer goal from 100 feet away. If Zobrist shot a ball into the net, he'd get a point. If Sutton blocked it, he scored.
"We were turning that thing up to 95-100 miles per hour," Sutton said. "They would get intense. That was when we hadn't quite made it to the majors, so we were betting lunch on it. So $7-$8 was a big deal back then."
Sutton, traded to Cincinnati in March 2009, started to groom himself into a superutility player one year after Zobrist played six positions in the Rays' World Series run.
"We kind of became the same player," Zobrist, 31, said. "It's just been really fun to watch each other do well. I feel like when he does well, I feel like it's myself out there. I'm really a fan when I watch him because we're so close."
• • •
Sutton's whirlwind May 20, when he got traded twice, had a happy ending, as he was sent to the Rays from the Pirates for a player to be named later.
Zobrist said he got a text message around 11:30 that night from Sutton:
"I'm coming to Tampa, can I stay at your place?"
Zobrist was stunned.
"I called him and right away, he was like, 'What's up teammate?' " Zobrist said. "I was like, 'No way! You're kidding!' "
Zobrist asked home clubhouse/equipment manager Chris Westmoreland to set Sutton up in the open locker next to his. "It made the transition a lot easier," Sutton said.
Sutton, who has played parts of four big-league seasons (94 games) with four teams, is getting his first extended opportunity with the injury-plagued Rays. He has played three positions (first, second and third base), hit cleanup in the order twice, and played in eight straight games. Like Zobrist, he has a handful of gloves in his locker.
But Sutton knows his buddy is a tough act to follow.
"I don't know about making an All-Star Game. I'd just like to stay in the big leagues for a full year," Sutton said, smiling. "I'm not trying to get too greedy."