Short stop? Lowrie in it for long haul
ANAHEIM, Calif. - It was a medium-speed ground ball to the left of shortstop.
As Jed Lowrie glided toward it, everyone interested in the fortunes of the Boston Red Sox was thinking the same thing: "Whew! We're out of the inning."
In 45 games as the starting shortstop, Jed Lowrie hadn't made an error. Anything he hadn't caught had been ruled a hit by the official scorer. As far as ground balls were concerned, he was money. Except that this time he wasn't. He went down for this seemingly harmless third-inning Vladimir Guerrero grounder, but he bobbled it, the ball glancing off his glove and trickling into center field.
What followed was classically baseball. Torii Hunter lined a 1-and-2 Jon Lester pitch toward left. The ball fell in front of Jason Bay, scoring Garret Anderson from second. Jed Lowrie's first shortstop error of the season had led to an unearned run, the first score in Game 1 of the American League Division Series Wednesday night.
"I just got myself in a hurry," he explained yesterday, a 4-1 Red Sox victory in the books, his rare transgression reduced to a footnote of history. "I rushed myself. It wasn't until I saw the replay that I realized how much time I had. Any time you're in a hurry, good things seldom happen."
So the damage was done. What mattered now was whatever would follow. Was this going to mess with the kid's mind?
We didn't have to wait long for an answer. Three batters later, Mike Napoli hit one deep into the hole to lead off the fourth. Lowrie moved briskly to his right, made the stop, and gunned out Napoli with a strong throw. That was the kid shortstop the Red Sox had come to rely on.
"It was good to see him make that play," said Kevin Youkilis. "An error's going to happen. It's good that he got it out of the way in the first game."
"That play was important," Lowrie acknowledged. "I needed to show these guys I belong."
Shortstop is kind of a spooked position for the Red Sox. It was Nomah, followed by Orlando Cabrera in 2004. It was the skittish Edgar Renteria in 2005. It was Alex Gonzalez and his magic glove (for 111 games, anyway) in 2006. It was $36 million man Julio Lugo in 2007 and right through July 11 of this season, until the Dominican went down with an injured quadriceps. Since July 12, it's been 24-year-old Jed Lowrie, who, frankly, many baseball folk thought could never play shortstop in the big leagues.
Oh, they believed he was a pretty good offensive player, and a pretty good baseball player in general, but there was an honest belief among many people who study baseball players for a living that he wasn't cut out to be an everyday major league shortstop. He could be a third baseman, maybe, a second baseman, almost certainly, but a shortstop? No.
And then Lowrie played 45 games without making an error, demonstrating poise, range, and a quality arm. Combine that with an offensive start that peaked with a .314 average and an .858 on-base plus slugging percentage Aug. 19, five weeks into his stewardship at short. The team was winning in those happy early post-Manny days, and Lowrie was making himself into a vital piece of the puzzle, so much so that people were projecting him into a long-term tenure as the Red Sox shortstop, the $18 million owed to Lugo over the next two seasons notwithstanding.
Lowrie, of course, would prefer not to go there.
"When I came up, it was to alleviate a problem," he said. "My focus was not to take anyone's job. It was to come up here and help out any way I could. I'm just trying to improve myself and earn a spot in the big leagues. I just want to continue to improve and help the team. I need to get better. I'm not trying to take anyone's job."
He's certainly right that he's far from a finished product, especially with a bat in his hands. Since Aug. 19, he has struggled at the plate, dragging his average down to .258 by season's end, with a corresponding skid to a modest .739 OPS. He hit a sad .213 in September, striking out an alarming 30 times. A switch-hitter, he was particularly ineffective from the left side, finishing the season with a disturbing OPS gap (.934 righty, .653 lefty).
So it was heartening to the Red Sox when Lowrie led off the ninth inning of a 2-1 game Wednesday with a solid single to left off righthander Scot Shields. Jason Varitek sacrificed him to second, and he scored the Sox' third run on a Jacoby Ellsbury single to right, sliding deftly across the plate with a nice hand tag. You had to feel good for the young man.
No one has to tell him how bad he's been. He offers no excuse, but he has a rational explanation.
"The big league season has an extra month," he said. "At first, you don't think it makes a difference. You say, 'What's an extra month?' Well, it wears on you physically and mentally, and I did not handle it well. It's a grind, and in my first time going through it I did not manage it well and I did not manage my at-bats well.
"But I will learn from it. Going through this failure will enable me to grow. You grow as a player and you learn who you are as a person."
Now the month is October, and it's a whole new dynamic. Everyone has an extra adrenaline flow. The stakes are high, the games are intense, and suddenly, it's "Tired? Who's tired?"
After all, Lowrie is the starting shortstop for the world champion Boston Red Sox as they try to defend their title. What could be better than that?
"This is fun," he said. "I've got an opportunity to play baseball on a daily basis for a living, and there's nothing else I'd rather be doing."
Just a hunch, but I think this kid is here for the long haul.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.