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Lowell walks softly, carries big stick

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  August 12, 2009 11:14 AM

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Mike Lowell watches one of his two home runs Tuesday night. (Jim Davis / Globe Staff)

At his worst, Mike Lowell is a dissatisfied, stubborn and proud man frustrated with his plight. At his best, he is a bona fide, qualified, and certified RBI man whose productivity speaks for itself.

Last night, he was a little of both.

"I’m grateful that I’m at least swinging a good bat," Lowell said last night following the Red Sox’ 7-5 win over the Detroit Tigers at Fenway Park. "I don’t know why you wouldn’t want a good bat in your lineup."

Lowell was not supposed to play in this game, of course. Once again, it was his turn to sit. Shortly after Lowell and his balky hip returned from the disabled list last month, the Red Sox executed a series of transactions as if they were trading shares on the floor of the stock exchange: prospects for Adam LaRoche, LaRoche for Casey Kotchman, prospects for Victor Martinez. When the closing bell sounded, the Red Sox were left with Martinez, Kotchman, Lowell, David Ortiz, Jason Varitek and Kevin Youkilis - "five or six position guys for four spots," as Lowell put it – in an attempt to bolster a Boston lineup that had been sagging.

Ten games later, Martinez and Youkilis are the only players among that group who have played every game. Martinez may not sit anytime soon. Youkilis will have no choice.

Which brings us back to Lowell.

In the aftermath of Youkilis’w ejection last night following his decision to charge the mound in bottom of the second inning -- a suspension is inevitable -- Lowell entered the game as a pinch runner. He ended up going 2 for 3 with a pair of homers, three RBI and three runs scored, prompting his manager to laud Lowell’s "professionalism." Like most everyone else in New England at this stage, Francona knows that Lowell is a full-time player who takes pride in being in the lineup everyday. He also knows that the Sox’ current surplus of bodies, coupled with Lowell’s recovery from hip surgery, has put some restrictions on his ability to serve as such.

At the moment, is there anything to be drawn from the fact that Lowell is batting .368 since the All-Star break, when the Red Sox decided to lessen his workload? Maybe yes, maybe no.

"I think that’s a good way to justify it because we have five or six position guys for four spots," countered Lowell. "I’ve always enjoyed being in a position where I can hit with guys on base because I’ve done it my whole career."

Said Francona, "I don’t think we need to take credit for him swinging the bat well. He’s been a good hitter for a lot of years."

You want to talk consistency? A year ago, with one game remaining before the All-Star break, Lowell was batting .301 with 13 home runs and 57 RBI in 78 games. In 85 games this season, those happen to be almost his exact totals (.297, 13, 57). That would hardly be surprising were it not for the fact that Lowell had his hip injury in between, a problem that effectively sidelined him for the second half of last season and has significantly limited his mobility this season.

At the moment, we all know that consistent run production, particularly against good pitching, appears to be one of the Sox’ greatest flaws. This season, when Lowell knocks in at least one run, the Red Sox are 25-8. During his Sox career, the team is 137-57 when he has at least one RBI. Two years ago, before the hip injury, Lowell knocked in a career-best 120 runs, and he was well on his way to another good season when the hip problem derailed his season.

Since that time, the Red Sox have had to deal with the reality of a 35-year-old third baseman with a bad hip. They pursued Mark Teixeira. They traded for LaRoche and Martinez. Lowell was affected by those maneuvers more than perhaps any other Sox player, especially considering his performance when healthy. If his ego has been bruised along the way, it is certainly understandable. As any manager will tell you -- Francona especially -- you would much rather have a player who wants to be on the field more than one who would prefer to be on the field less.

Clearly, Lowell would like to play more. His bat is making a good argument for him. Francona has been loyal to all of his players over the years, but independent of Youkilis’s suspension, the manager might soon be faced with a particularly difficult decision.

The Sox value Varitek behind the plate. They seem to regard Kotchman largely as a reserve. If Martinez is at first and Youkilis is at third, that leaves two players for one spot -- Lowell and Ortiz -- and the productivity of the former currently outweighs the performance of the latter. If the Red Sox were to get to the playoffs, when the schedule is spotted with days off, one can only wonder if Francona would be forced choose between two players who have meant a great deal to his team in recent years.

Meanwhile, despite his displeasure, Lowell is coming off the bench to hit two home runs in a game, something no Sox player had done since Joe Foy in 1967.

"Yeah, how about that?" Francona said of Lowell’s performance. "I do think that shows a lot of professionalism. That’s not an easy thing to do."

Said a sarcastic Lowell, "Is that a sign that they can sit me more?"

On the contrary.

After all, at the moment, the best argument he is making is with his bat.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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