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Lowe and Behold Who would have thought that Derek Lowe, nearly banned in Boston last year as a closer, would turn starter and ride his scintillating sinker into the hearts of Red Sox Nation?

July 08, 2002
July 08, 2002

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July 8, 2002

Lowe and Behold Who would have thought that Derek Lowe, nearly banned in Boston last year as a closer, would turn starter and ride his scintillating sinker into the hearts of Red Sox Nation?

This year he is the American League ERA leader, a 6'6"
righthanded starter seemingly blessed from the cradle with a
wicked limbo dancer of a sinker that on the best of days is
certifiably unhittable. Last year he was afraid to leave his own
clubhouse. If the path to stardom for Derek Lowe didn't exactly
pass through hell, it did have to traverse Yawkey Way, the
street outside of Fenway Park that is typically lined with the
most willful of Boston Red Sox fans waiting for the players to
exit their parking lot.

This is an article from the July 8, 2002 issue Original Layout

Lowe, then a reliever, could not bring himself to face the
gantlet last Aug. 31, not after having served up his third
game-tying or game-winning home run of the season to the dreaded
New York Yankees. He had grown weary of fans' spitting and
pounding on his car and rocking it. He didn't want to find out
what might happen this night, not after he had blown a 1-0 lead
in the eighth inning when Yankees catcher Jorge Posada had taken
him yard with a runner on. So Lowe turned the clubhouse into his
personal fallout shelter.

He hunkered down there until he figured that even the most
clinically helpless of the fans had gone home. Maybe those were
some of the same people who accounted for the stacks of mail
wishing him traded or dead. Maybe they were among the fans who
shouted profanely for him to sit down every time he stood to
warm up in the bullpen. Maybe some of them had been at Fenway on
Derek Lowe Poster Night, and had been among those who angrily
heaved scores of the giveaways onto the field in protest of
another Lowe-light, this time a blown save against the Seattle
Mariners.

By the time Lowe decided it was safe to head home, it was nearly
1 a.m. Yawkey Way was indeed abandoned. "That was the lowest
point," Lowe says of hiding in the locker room. "I waited two
hours, at least, just sitting there in the clubhouse. It got so
bad last year that I remember days when I'd pull out the
schedule and pray to God we were coming up to the last day of a
home stand. Or if we were on the road, I'd always want to get
[called in to pitch during] the last game of a trip before we
went back to Fenway, hoping I'd have a good game so they
wouldn't get on me so bad. The last day of a trip was always
very important for me."

Ten months later Red Sox fans are picking up his tab at
restaurants. Besides possessing that AL-best 2.18 ERA, Lowe
(11-4) was at week's end the league's co-leader in wins, the
proud owner of a no-hitter (April 27 against the Tampa Bay Devil
Rays), one of the most reliable starters in baseball and,
strangest of all, a fan favorite. He also might well be the best
running mate ace Pedro Martinez has known in his five seasons in
the Boston rotation. Not since Rosie Ruiz beat all the other
women to the finish line in the 1980 Boston Marathon by
allegedly skipping most of the course has the Hub seen a more
unlikely winner than Lowe, whom The Boston Globe described this
spring as "once among the most reviled figures in the
sports-crazy metropolis."

Lowe, 29, is more than halfway home to joining Wilbur Wood
(Chicago White Sox, 1970 and '71) as the only pitchers in
history to save 20 games and win 20 games in back-to-back
seasons. (Lowe had 24 saves in 2001.) He has gotten this far
with an apparent ease exceeded only by that of his egress from a
suddenly friendly Fenway. Through Sunday, Lowe had allowed two
runs or fewer in 12 of his 16 starts, held batters to a .193
average and permitted only four home runs.

"There's no doubt in my mind it's the most dominating run of
pitching I've ever seen," says Red Sox righthander John Burkett,
a veteran of 14 major league seasons. "I pitched with Billy
Swift in '93, Kevin Brown and Al Leiter in '96 and [Greg] Maddux
and [Tom] Glavine last year, but I've never seen anything close
to this."

Says centerfielder Johnny Damon, "With the great pitchers you
feel like every time they go out there, you have a great chance
to win. With Derek it's been more than that. Every time he goes
out there, he has a chance to throw a no-hitter."

Indeed, Lowe was unhittable on that April Saturday against the
Devil Rays. He since has given each of more than 30 Boston
players and staff members a $1,500 watch inscribed with the
date, opponent and DEREK LOWE NO-HITTER on the back. Even before
such generosity, Lowe was popular in the clubhouse for his
gregarious, playful nature.

"Goofy, that's the word I'd use to describe him," says catcher
Jason Varitek, Lowe's teammate since 1995. "He's a lefthander
trapped in a righthander's body."

Lowe has been known to play pickup basketball games at public
courts in cities throughout the American League. He once skipped
out of the visitors' clubhouse at Yankee Stadium for a
full-court run in a Bronx park across the street. He's also a
six-handicap golfer with a knack for helicoptering clubs. "I
don't get ticked off playing baseball like I do in golf," Lowe
says. "In baseball if you do everything right, you'll make a
good pitch, and chances are you'll get the guy out. In golf you
can do everything right, and maybe the ball hits the top of the
bunker and rolls in. Luckily, the Titleist people take care of
us. I'll tell them, 'I need a new driver.' And they'll go,
'Didn't you just get one?' And I'll say, 'Oh, yeah. It's on the
bottom of a lake on the 12th hole somewhere in California.'"

Says infielder Lou Merloni, a native of Framingham, Mass., "If
Derek were a girl, people would tell blonde jokes about him. But
you know what? In Boston nothing's tougher than blowing games to
the Yankees. He stood there and took the heat last year. He
said, 'Right now I'm horrible.' He never hid from the media."

Pitching solely in relief, Lowe suffered losses in five of his
first 11 appearances last season. When the Yankees beat him in
August, he was 4-10 for a team that otherwise was 67-52. By then
the Red Sox had replaced him as their closer by acquiring Ugueth
Urbina in a trade with the Montreal Expos. Joe Kerrigan, then
Boston's manager, gave Lowe three starts in September. "I think
he's more relaxed as a starter," said Kerrigan. "There's no
margin for error as a closer." In those outings Lowe went 1-0
with a 1.13 ERA.

After the season Kerrigan (who would be replaced by Grady Little
on March 11) told Lowe to prepare to be a starter in 2002. On
Oct. 15 Lowe, who has never thrown more than 170 innings in any
pro season, began a weight training and eating regimen (four to
five meals a day). He gained 25 pounds over the winter, bringing
him to 230. "After the 2000 season I went on [an all-star] tour
of Japan and got back November 18," Lowe says. "I never truly
worked out that winter. I had a lousy spring training and got
off to a bad start. Did I work as hard as I could? No. That was
something I could do something about. I was in the gym in
October doing squats. I had never done squats in my life. My
goal was to show up in spring training ready to start the
season--throwing all my pitches and being sharp from the first
day."

Short relievers are the demolition experts of a pitching staff.
They rely on raw force and quick detonations. By contrast,
starting pitchers must face the same hitters several times over;
thus they operate with the measured hand of an archeologist. To
prepare for the switch to full-time starter, Lowe refined his
curveball and changeup, added a cut fastball and, most
important, made his signature sinker--which is essentially a
two-seam fastball that drops--more versatile. As a reliever,
Lowe threw the sinker to the same spot every time: away to
lefthanders and in to righthanders. Now he can throw it at a
lefthanded batter's hip and have it run back over the inside
corner.

"This year I'm using both sides of the plate," he says. "I'm
also coming inside to lefthanders and sinking it away to
righthanders. I was never able to do that before. I've had times
this year when righthanders have taken three [strikes] away
while looking for the ball in. My delivery is different.... When
people ask me what's the difference between this year and last
year, they're looking for one thing--but there's a lot of things."

Says Martinez, the only one of 27 Boston starters over the
previous three years to win at least 14 games or pitch at least
200 innings, "His ball breaks down a foot, a foot and a half.
It's amazing to watch."

The sinker, which Lowe began throwing in high school as his
natural fastball, was his ticket to the big leagues, even if he
didn't know it in 1991, when as a 170-pound senior at Edsel Ford
High in Dearborn, Mich., he was All- Suburban Eight League in
baseball, basketball, soccer and golf. After averaging more than
30 points and making all-state as a guard, Lowe planned to play
basketball at Eastern Michigan, until the Mariners drafted him
in the eighth round. "Never saw it coming," he says about
interest from baseball scouts. "And if you saw me pitch then,
you wouldn't have, either. I pitched O.K., but it wasn't like I
was great."

Six years later, in one of the most lopsided trading-deadline
deals in history, Seattle sent Lowe and Varitek to Boston for
journeyman reliever Heathcliff Slocumb. Boston turned Lowe into
a reliever. In 2000 he rode his sinker to the All-Star Game and
42 saves.

"People think I've got some strange grip or throw it a certain
way," Lowe says. "I just hold it on two seams and throw it as
hard as I can." By keeping his hand inside the ball--that is,
slightly on the left side of it--Lowe imparts not only a
downward action but also one that makes the ball run, or dart
away from a lefthanded hitter.

Though Lowe packs more hardware in his pitching tool belt this
year, the sinker remains his hammer. The day after Lowe shackled
the White Sox on May 20 (two hits over eight scoreless innings),
Chicago slugger Frank Thomas told Boston bench coach Mike
Stanley, "It's like he has a remote control with that
pitch--like it's a video game, and he can make the ball go down
where he wants it."

In an overwhelming June 16 win over the Atlanta Braves (one run,
seven hits through seven innings), Lowe threw 98 sinkers among
his 104 pitches, leaving Braves manager Bobby Cox to say, "He
literally can pitch with one pitch. He's that good."

"He has the most movement on a fastball that I've ever seen in
my life," adds Atlanta leftfielder Chipper Jones. "I used to
think Kevin Brown in his heyday had the best I'd ever seen. But
he was throwing 93, 94 miles an hour, and it was like trying to
hit a cannonball. Lowe is throwing 88 miles an hour, and it
looks like you can hit it, but then it moves a foot. I'm telling
you, he can throw a ball right down the middle of the plate, and
it actually moves so much [down and away] that it winds up out
of the strike zone. And he threw me one sinker that actually
moved [inside] under my bat, so I know he can make it go both
ways."

Lowe faced 129 batters in June and permitted only 11 fly balls.
Still, Little has handled Lowe with caution because of his
substantially increased workload this year. Lowe has exceeded
100 pitches only seven times, never throwing more than 111. (In
his no-hitter he threw 97.) Lowe, following the advice of
Burkett and pitching coach Tony Cloninger, has cut back on the
duration and intensity of his side sessions between starts.

Even as he performs brilliantly, of course, Lowe knows that if
he starts to slump in the second half, Red Sox fans could turn
on him again. After all, from Heartbreak Hill to Yawkey Way,
Bostonians take to skepticism the way monks take to prayer.
Rosie, it turned out, was too good to be true.

To see Tom Verducci's picks for midseason MVPs and top rookies,
pitchers and managers, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN HUET SAFE AT HOME A Fenway whipping boy last season after his many blown saves, Lowe is now the toast of Yawkey Way. B/W PHOTO: MILLARD BERRY/DEARBORN PRESS & GUIDE BALL GAMES Derek was a star guard in high school, where he first threw his natural sinker.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
"Every time Derek goes out there, he has a chance to throw a
no-hitter," says Damon.