ARLINGTON, Texas — The importance of a hit is proportional to its timing. Score and inning give value as the leverage rises. But in measuring the weight of a hit, do not overlook the who behind it.
Timing and person coalesced in World Series Game 2 Wednesday for the Tampa Bay Rays. With one swing, the Rays found their equilibrium and jumped back into the series after playing the role of bystanders in Game 1. With one swing, their wide-eyed look from the night before turned into smiles that made for a dugout funhouse. With one swing they took a lead they were never giving up. With one swing they welcomed back second baseman Brandon Lowe from the hitting wasteland where he had been wandering for the past month.
“He’s our best hitter by far,” Rays pitcher Blake Snell said after Tampa Bay evened the series with a 6-4 win. “When he gets going the team gets going. Don’t let him get hot. I’m telling you, don’t let him get hot. Because when that guy gets hot, he goes off. We’ve seen that before. He looks like he’s ready to go off.”
Said Lowe, “I remember walking away from BP tonight saying, ‘I’m [bleeping] tired of sucking.’”
Actually, that batting practice session jumpstarted Lowe, both mechanically and metaphysically. Normally a dead pull hitter, Lowe concentrated in batting practice on driving the baseball to center and left field, forcing himself to break a bad habit of drifting forward, as he did in a weak 0-for-4 in Game 1 without getting the ball out of the infield. He lunged for a curveball from Clayton Kershaw and changeup from Pedro Báez in that game. He looked anxious and out of sorts, especially on the stat sheet. Lowe was hitting .107 for the postseason, with six hits in 56 at bats.
“I was just trying to hit Cashy,” Lowe said, referring to his manager and batting practice pitcher, Kevin Cash. “He really slings it.”
Presto, change-o. Properly prepared, Lowe popped not one but two opposite field homers, joining Tony Lazzeri of the 1932 Yankees as the only American League second baseman to hit two homers in a World Series game. Lowe had not hit any opposite field homers since June 16, 2019.
As for the metaphysical part, that’s where Cash comes in. Lowe normally hits in Group 2, the one that hits against Paul Hoover, the team’s Major League Field coordinator. Hitting coach Chad Mottola figured he had tried just about everything to get Lowe on track, so why not put Lowe in the group that hits against Cash.
“Kevin’s going to take all the credit,” Lowe said. “That’s okay. I know what group I’m hitting in next game.”
The game turned (and maybe the series) just two batters in. Dodgers starter Tony Gonsolin fell behind Lowe, 3-1. If there is an upside to being so cold, it is that a pitcher is more apt to go right after a .107 hitter when behind in the count. True to form, Gonsolin poured in a 95-mph fastball. Lowe was hitting .080 against fastballs this postseason, so why not?
This time, however, Lowe put his sweetest swing in weeks on the pitch. He crushed it into the Rays bullpen in left field.
“I got a good pitch to hit and I hit it hard,” Lowe said. “I don’t go up there trying to hit home runs. It’s pretty difficult to hit a home run, especially for a person of my size.”
The Rays had not played well in their 8-3 Game 1 loss. The Dodgers showed the advantages of far more postseason experience and having played at Globe Life Field for three weeks, including in front of fans. Tampa Bay was in every way new to the scene and looked it.
“It was a little overwhelming, I admit,” center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said.
Lowe’s homer sent the dugout into a frenzy. Now they could exhale. And nobody was smiling bigger and more often than Lowe.
“It was pure joy going back to the dugout after the home run,” he said. “And not because it’s an individual thing. Only because it’s for the whole team.”
To understand why the “who” behind the hit matters, you have to understand what Lowe means to the team. Undrafted as an undersized high school kid in Virginia, Lowe wound up at the University of Maryland and made himself into a rather good player. He hit .348 and .341. Two days before the 2015 draft, he broke his leg. Nobody, he thought, was going to draft an undersized infielder with a broken leg.
On the day of the draft, Lowe was eating at a restaurant with friends. Somebody in the party said, “Brandon, you’ve been drafted by the Rays.”
Lowe thought his broken leg was now being pulled.
“Don’t joke with me,” he said.
It was true. Tampa Bay drafted him in the third round. Three years later he was in the big leagues with a solid bat and modest power. Lowe is an insatiable student of hitting in the mold of J.D. Martinez, complete with a bagful of gadgets. He hits with bands tied to his limbs, with a high-tech feedback vest, and with just about any training aid, especially those that train proper posture and balance in the batter’s box.
Stylistically when he’s right, Lowe looks like a left-handed Anthony Rendon, with a low hand position and—through all the work and gadgets—far more pop than you might expect from someone who is listed at 5'10" and 180 pounds.
His growth in his slugging percentage tells you just want kind of honors student he is when it comes to maximizing his swing: from .450 in 2018 to .514 last year to .554 this year. Lowe posted a .916 OPS this year, eighth best in the American League. He will get MVP votes this year; he is that good.
Without Lowe’s bat this month, the Rays were carried by Randy Arozarena, who was so ridiculously hot the Dodgers have cooled him off by throwing him so few strikes, especially fastballs. Tampa Bay isn’t going to win the World Series without Lowe’s bat. Suddenly it looks to be back.
In the fifth, Lowe swatted a changeup from Dustin May for a fence-scraper of a home run to left field; it bounced on top of the wall and over. With both home run swings, Lowe found the proper posture and balance he had been seeking, though he wasn’t about to declare himself fully locked in just yet.
“We’re getting there,” he said. “I think we’re really close. A little inconsistent. I did also have two rollover grounders. But I’ll give two rollover grounders for two home runs any day.”
If, as Snell suspects, Lowe is about to go off, look out. His hot streaks are molten. He once homered in four straight games in August, part of a 12-game stretch where he slugged .955. The 6-for-56 start to the postseason was the flip side.
In between the Lowe homers, Tampa Bay took advantage of a misplay by Dodgers second baseman Kiké Hernández on what should have been an inning-ending double play. Instead, Hernández took his eye off a grounder hit by Ji-Man Choi in his haste to start the double play that never was. The ball clanked off his glove, leaving him with only one out.
Instead of being off the field and in the dugout, the Dodgers made a pitching change: Dustin May for Víctor González. Manuel Margot, the first batter May faced, stroked a two-strike, two-out single. Joey Wendle drove in Choi and Margot with a double. Tampa Bay turned the extra out into two runs.
Gonsolin and May have been so bad for the Dodgers lately that it’s entirely possible that by yo-yoing the rookies between the rotation and bullpen they have lost both elite arms. May, for instance, was pitching for the sixth time in 16 days—without any routine to his schedule and no rhythm in his pitching.
If Game 1 was a case of bombing Opening Night, the Rays staged a solid performance in its wake. Snell was brilliant, especially with his slider. He tied a career high by getting eight outs off the pitch.
“They weren’t seeing it,” he said. “I had a lousy one in the bullpen. But once I got out there, it was my best pitch. Why not keep throwing it?”
The Rays put 14 runners on. Yandy Díaz finally squared up a pitch. Willy Adames roped a double. Lefty Aaron Loup, who will play in a big role in this series because of all the Los Angeles left-handed bats, sat down all three batters he faced.
It all broke right for the Rays. It all began with one swing. From the right guy. That’s what made the Rays’ first hit the biggest one of all.
“He can go quiet for a while,” Cash said, “but he can get as hot as anybody in baseball.”