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He needs better contract pitch

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- As most everyone in New England once again clears off their couches for Derek Lowe and hangs out their "Doctor Is In" shingles, they should take some small comfort in this: Victor Zambrano was not the pitcher wearing a Red Sox uniform last night.

But as much as Zambrano's performance staggered the imagination -- a Tampa Bay-record nine walks, a hit batsman, and 132 pitches thrown plateward to register just 14 outs -- it will be Lowe's latest exasperating effort that will be subject to nonstop analysis until he makes his next start, Wednesday at Fenway Park.

"We can't quit on him," catcher Jason Varitek said on a night when Lowe was bombed for seven consecutive hits in the third inning, and gave up as many runs (7) as he registered outs before manager Terry Francona spared him further abuse at the hands of the heretofore harmless Devil Rays, who took a 7-0 lead on Lowe and held on for a 9-6 win.

"We're going to need him in the long run," Varitek said. "He's a big part of our rotation and we just need a couple good things to happen for him. I believe in him, and I think this team believes in him."

Lowe isn't likely to find his critics as supportive as Varitek, not when he's returning home with an ERA of 6.02 a quarter of the way through the season, a figure eclipsed by only three other American League starters -- Brian Anderson of the Royals, Kyle Lohse of the Twins, and Jason Davis of the Indians.

And none of those three fancies himself, like Lowe does, as one of the prized arms headed for free agency after the season.

"I think, at times, he's searching a little bit," Francona said. "When he puts an outing together and gets his confidence, that will be the best thing for him and us. It's going to work. It obviously doesn't look like he feels good right now about . . . I think the best word I can use is he's searching."

Lowe's unsigned status, of course, will be the most popular theory offered for his erratic start, one in which he is now winless in his last four starts against teams -- the Indians, Royals, Blue Jays, and Devil Rays -- not considered the iron of the American League. That explanation has its adherents within the Sox clubhouse, his teammates more aware than anyone of Lowe's fragile emotional state, revealed so transparently during earlier travails in a Sox uniform.

He cracked under the strain of being a closer when the saves did not come as automatically his second go-round out of the pen as they had the first, and last year a bout with skin cancer cost him his normal spring preparation, and he was maddeningly inconsistent, nigh unbeatable at home (11-2, 3.21 ERA), an acid trip (6-5, 6.11 ERA) on the road.

This spring opened with Lowe complaining of being ignored by the Sox all winter, when in fact general manager Theo Epstein had maintained contact with Lowe's agent, Scott Boras. By the end of spring training, Lowe, incensed by what he perceived as the team's lowball offer, vowed to test the market after the season.

The fear, of course, was that Lowe would allow his contract status to become a distraction, placing undue pressure upon himself to pitch the game of his life every time he took the mound, with an eye on future earnings. He vowed not to let that happen, but in a season in which he has experienced uncharacteristic control problems (three starts with four or more walks, none last night), that will be the straw most easily grasped, at least on the outside.

Lowe will hear nothing of that. It has reached the point, of course, where there are lots of folks weighing in with what Lowe should or shouldn't be doing, which raises the question of whether the voice that most needs to be heard, that of pitching coach Dave Wallace, is registering to the degree it should be.

"You can keep playing or retire," Lowe told reporters last night, after veteran Mike Timlin first took him in the back for an extended therapeutic conversation. "That's basically the only way you can go. You've got to keep finding ways to get better."

Thinking too much? "I would say no," Lowe said, "but any time you're struggling, whether you're a pitcher or a hitter, you fight yourself. I think that's a common thing."

The Devil Rays did their early damage with innocuous-looking ground balls, like Rocco Baldelli's two-run multi-hopper up the middle that gave the Devil Rays a 3-0 lead, but then teed off on Lowe, the last four hits off the sinkerballer line drives struck with authority. Lowe's body language told the story as vividly as the scoreboard, but Francona rejected any suggestion that Lowe had given in when things went south.

"No, I don't think that," Francona said. "I wouldn't say that. I don't feel that, but I would never say that, ever."

Most of Lowe's problems have come, he said, when he is pitching out of the stretch, but neither he nor anyone else has found a cure.

"It's been very frustrating," he said, "to say the least."

Francona, like Varitek, insisted there will be an end to Lowe's struggles.

"It'll get better," he said. "It's not always on the timetable everyone wants, but it will get better."

Until that happens, though, Dr. Freud, Lowe is all yours.

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