Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Lowell, Red Sox still sorting out logjam

Mike Lowell showed up at the ballpark on Sunday and Monday and did what he always does before the game: He got some treatment on his hip. He took some swings. He took some ground balls. He got himself ready to play.

He then sat down and watched from the dugout as the Red Sox went ahead and played without him.

"I try to take it as a mental break for about five innings, and then I get loose," said Lowell, in the lineup on Wednesday as a designated hitter. "There's matchup situations and all that, so there's a chance you're going in -- and if you think you're not going in, that's the day you're going in, and you don't want to throw those at-bats away."

Back-to-back days without playing wasn't enough for Lowell to start growing moss. He had, after all, spent the first three weeks of July on the disabled list. But he's certainly found himself in a situation with which he's far from familiar. He's one of four players -- along with Adam LaRoche, David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis -- who fit into the lineup in three positions. One of the four, barring a fairly bizarre defensive alignment, will start every Red Sox game on the bench.

Lowell, like each of the other three, has been a starting player for most of his career. He played in 160 games as a 28-year-old in 2002 and played in at least 150 games in four straight seasons from 2004-07. Days off aren't something he covets or necessarily enjoys.

He does, however, understand that it's not just about him.

"We're trying to piece together a lineup to score some runs," he said. "Adam, myself, Youk and David -- we're the four guys for three spots -- are used to playing every day, so it'll be something that's a little different. But our main focus is winning."

Lowell has done as much as anyone to help score runs. He's hitting .385 since he came off the disabled list -- by far his batting average of any month -- and already has three times as many extra-base hits as he did in 68 at-bats in June.

It's at third base that he's still having trouble. He failed to track down two slow rollers down the third-base line on Saturday, and he still has trouble with ground balls more than a couple of steps to either side. About his only defensive highlight since his return has been a snow-cone catch of a pop fly he caught while leaning over the rail in front of the visitors' dugout on Tuesday night.

"I needed about 30 seconds to recoup," he said with a chuckle. "But as long as I make the play, everyone will be satisfied."

Barring a trade in which the Red Sox eat even more salary, though, Lowell isn't going anywhere. Terry Francona's big challenge will be to get the most of all four of the bats he has available to play at first base, third base and designated hitter. Sitting Lowell against righthanded hitters might make the most sense as far as the splits are concerned, but a career everyday player isn't going to perform at his best if he's suddenly only playing once a week.

"That's why you see there aren't too many fourth or fifth outfielders or utility infielders that hit .300," Lowell said. "Rhythm is big for a hitter. To turn it on and off like a switch is something that's hard. That's why those guys that hit a respectable .260 or .270 are very valuable to teams."

The extra rest will help Lowell, who has fought with his surgically repaired hip all season, to stay healthy. That doesn't mean sitting on the bench for two or three straight days so LaRoche or Ortiz can get into a rhythm is something he's looking forward to doing.

"A couple days off here and there, with my situation, coming off surgery, is probably a little different," he said. "But as long as we're winning, it'll make it something that's a lot easier to accept."

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