Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The speed of Mike Lowell and the clutch hitting of Jeff Bailey

First baseman Jeff Bailey came into Tuesday's game hitting .182. Third baseman Mike Lowell came into Tuesday's game with a 40 time that could be measured by sundial. But it was Lowell's decision to try to steal third and Bailey's sharp single to left field that plated the key run in Tuesday's 2-1 win over the Blue Jays.

"Speed never takes a day off," Red Sox manager Terry Francona deadpanned after the game.

It wasn't speed, of course, that gave Lowell the confidence to try to steal third in that big spot in the second inning. Lowell now is 35 years old and coming off hip surgery and runs like he's dragging Santa's sleigh behind him. But when you've been around as many years as Lowell has, you pick up on a few things.

What Lowell picked up on in the second inning was that Brian Tallet (a) wasn't paying any attention to him, and (b) was going to throw a changeup down in the zone with two strikes, the perfect pitch on which to run.

"He's been talking a big game about doing it at some point," left fielder Jason Bay said, "and he finally did it. ... He just says, 'One of these days, someone's going to not be paying attention to me at second base, and I'm going do it. I'm going to take third.'"

Bailey, for his part, was just trying to make contact with two strikes and get a hit to score a run. Last year's International League Most Valuable Player been handed the full-time gig at first base when Kevin Youkilis was placed on the disabled list but hadn't exactly seized his opportunity; entering play Tuesday, he hitting .195 in the two weeks he'd had the job. Other than the solo home run he'd hit on Saturday in Seattle, he'd gone two full weeks without driving in a run.

"You're hitting under .200, and you know it," he said. "You get in your own head sometimes. You've got to fight that and take on the task at hand and go pitch-by-pitch, whatever you can do."

About all he'd done well was hit lefthanded pitching. Going into Tuesday night, he was hitting .400 (5-for-16) against lefties and just .100 (4-for-40) against righties.

That specialty, though, might come in handy if Terry Francona opts to begin platooning David Ortiz in the next few weeks. Bailey could get a spot start at designated hitter if the Red Sox have to face lefties like the Yankees' Andy Pettitte or the Phillies' Cole Hamels; he also might get a pinch-hitting opportunity or two against Mike Gonzalez, the Braves' lefthanded closer.

"The one positive that I'm taking out of all this is that I'm still hitting lefthanders decent," he said. "That's what I'm here to do. Anything extra off righthanders is a bonus. I'm still feeling good against the lefthanders, and they know it, too, so that's one positive for me to go off."

With Youkilis due back from the disabled list on Wednesday, Bailey was far from oblivious to the fact that Tuesday's game would mark the end of his run of 12 straight starts at first base. He's not about to be shipped back to Pawtucket -- not with Mark Kotsay still hitting speed bumps in his road back from offseason surgery.

But unless someone else gets hurt, he's not going to get the chance to play every day the way he has over the past couple of weeks.

"You just keep working, and you do what you can," he said, nodding toward the sign on the whiteboard that read Extra hitting Wednesday: 3:00. "Three o'clock tomorrow, extra hitting, I'll be there for that. I'll take extra swings in the cage. That's all you can do -- try to get better. It's always about trying to get better."

Bailey already wasn't exactly swimming with confidence. It didn't help matters when Tallet's third pitch, a fastball, nipped the outside corner to push the count to 1-2. Entering play Tuesday, Bailey was 1-for-13 when facing a 1-2 count and had struck out nine times.

As Tallet went into his windup, out of the corner of his eye, Bailey suddenly saw Lowell breaking for third in one of the most surprising attempted steals anyone will ever see. Tallet had thrown over to first base during J.D. Drew's at-bat; that, though, seemed more like a formality than anything else.

After Drew walked, Tallet barely glanced at Lowell again.

"I think maybe (Lowell) saw something, like a grip, like he knew he was going to throw a changeup," Bailey said. "(Tallet) had been keeping it down for the most part, and if the ball's in the dirt, he's got it easy. I think that's what he's thinking right there."

Lowell actually has stolen third base five times in his career -- and four of those steals of third have come since he was traded to Red Sox, including two just last year. Both of those steals of third also came when he was on second and another runner was on first -- but both of those also came with righthanded pitchers on the mound and lefties at the plate, increasing the degree of difficulty significantly.

Since then, though, Lowell has undergone hip surgery and has lost quite a bit of whatever speed he had to begin with.

"I know I'm not a burner on the bases," Lowell said. "but you don't have to be fast to be able to see things and maybe try to take advantage of a situation."

It almost backfired on him, though.

"I actually was a little bit scared because I thought Tallet was a little quicker (to the plate) on the ball I decided to go on," he said, "so I was really hoping Jeff would make contact. I'm not sure the likelihood of me being safe was very high."

Bailey made contact. He saw Lowell out of the corner of his eye, but he still jumped on a changeup that in the middle of the strike zone and laced it into shallow left field for a base hit.

"He hung a changeup," he said. "I probably should have hit it harder than I did. But a hit and an RBI is a hit and an RBI."

Lowell scored easily, and Drew cruised into third. If the runners hadn't been off with the pitch, neither would have had a chance to advance more than one base. George Kottaras then followed with a sacrifice fly to score Drew, and Tim Wakefield had the two runs he'd need to win his fifth game of the season.

But this wasn't about Wakefield. This was about Bailey and Lowell.

Bailey got the game-changing hit for which he'd been searching for two weeks.

"Yeah, it's good to -- well, I wouldn't say go out; I don't think I'm out of here yet," he said with a chuckle. "But when you're struggling, you try to just get one hit, and then you get the one hit and you go from there. Unfortunately, that's all I've been able to muster in the past few games, but one hit helps the team, and you do what you can do."

And Lowell got to act like he was capable of stealing third base without actually drawing a throw down to third base.

"I'm just curious, had Bailey not swung at that ball, what we might have seen," Bay said.

Said Lowell, tongue firmly in cheek, "As you can see, Jacoby (Ellsbury) got thrown out at third (in the eighth inning), so only the really elite runners would have been safe."

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