Thursday, August 13, 2009

When it comes to Lowell, the leader is still good

Mike Lowell cemented his reputation as the Sox' leader with this takedown of Robinson Cano in 2007. Photo from this site.

From November through March, it’s easy to view the baseball season as a six-month marathon, one in which all clich├ęs about a steady hand, calm approach and the eventual evening out of all statistical quirks apply. But it’s funny how easily those philosophies can be forgotten from April through October, when one-sixtieth or so of the season can feel like such a defining stretch.

And so it is that the Red Sox, perceived to be in full-blown sky-is-falling mode after a four-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees, are no longer in critical condition after three straight wins against the Tigers—each one easier than the last—and three straight losses by the Rays. Now it’s the Rays who appear unlikely to get off the canvas and the Sox who will be atop the wild card standings heading into this weekend’s series with the Rangers, who appear to be the second of the AL’s two serious wild card contenders.

That said, if the Sox do end up making the playoffs, they’ll likely look back on this single series as a defining moment, and only tangentially because Kevin Youkilis channeled his inner Twisted Sister by charging the mound against the Tigers’ Rick Porcello Tuesday (Joe Girardi expected something to happen and it did). Youkilis’ ejection and subsequent five-game suspension forced Mike Lowell into the lineup. Lowell is 5-for-7 with three homers and five RBI since he had to replace Youkilis in the second inning Tuesday.

Lowell is far from the only player contributing to this mini-resurgence. Jason Bay is back from a three-month sabbatical and Josh Beckett is pitching like a Cy Young Award winner and leading a pitching staff that has regained its effectiveness at just the right time.

But neither Bay nor Beckett is in the process of being marginalized by the Sox. Maybe I’m missing something 240 miles to the southwest (wouldn’t be the first time), but I don’t understand why the Sox seem so eager to reduce Lowell’s role.

I get that the Sox couldn’t pass up acquiring Victor Martinez for Justin Masterson and prospects and that Lowell’s hip problems make him the most obvious candidate to sit even on nights when Martinez catches. But still: There’s a special intangible quality to Lowell, an uncanny knack he has for being in the center of it all whenever good things happen to the Sox.

He won the 2007 World Series MVP, but I think Lowell’s defining moment occurred several months earlier in the aftermath of another Youkilis plunking. Less than 24 hours after Scott Proctor tried taking off Youkilis’ head in the ninth inning of a blowout Yankees win, Lowell had three hits and four RBI and broke up a potential double play by leveling Robinson Cano in between first and second base to lead the Sox to a come-from-behind 11-6 win.

The takeout of Cano was perfect: Laced with an undercurrent of anger and retribution, yet perfectly defensible given the situation. Without saying a word, Lowell stood up to the Yankees and declared the Sox would not be bullied. It’s impossible to measure how that sentiment helped the Sox over the rest of the season, but given the Sox held off the scorching Yankees for the AL East crown and came back from a three games to one deficit to beat the Indians in the ALCS, I’m willing to say he set a pretty definitive tone that afternoon.

There’s no teaching that and no developing that kind of leadership quality, but when a team has a player like that in its midst, it should do whatever it can to feature him, It’d be an entirely different story if Lowell was the veteran leader hitting .185, but he’s hitting .393 since coming back from the disabled list and he has 38 extra-base hits in 327 at-bats overall.

Sure, he’s far better at home (.324 with 26 extra-base hits and 39 RBI in 145 at-bats) than on the road (.286 with 12 extra-base hits and 20 RBI in 182 at-bats), and sure, it’s smart not to throw him out there seven days a week considering how he broke down in hitting .207 in June. But the Sox will have a lot better chance of going deep into October—and it’s sure fair to wonder how far they would have gotten last year if Lowell hadn’t been sidelined after the ALDS due to his bad hip—if Lowell is more than a role player. Maybe Lowell ripping it up over one-sixtieth of the season this week will convince the Sox of that, too.

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