Mike Lowell has been a terrific hitter over the last couple of games.
"The last couple?" catcher Jason Varitek said with a degree of indignance in his voice. "How about all year? Mike has swung the bat well all year for us. He's been one of our guys, our RBI, guy, and he continues to do so."
OK, that's true. Entering play Wednesday, Lowell ranked fifth on the team in hits, third in doubles, fourth in RBI and, most importantly, third in OS -- ahead of both J.D. Drew and Dustin Pedroia.
But it was when the third baseman landed on the disabled list for the first time this season that some began to question how much he'd be able to give his team the rest of the way. He's answered that in a big way, swinging a hot bat for the last two weeks in a lineup full of slumping bats. Jason Bay is hitting .179 since the All-Star break, and Kevin Youkilis has fanned 14 times in 46 trips to the plate. Entering play Wednesday, Lowell was hitting .429 and OPS'ing 1.113 since the All-Star break -- and delivered another run-scoring double as the Red Sox came from behind to earn a split with the Oakland A's.
Here's the only problem: He can't field.
No, really, he can't field.
Lowell used to be a terrific defensive third baseman. He won a Gold Glove four years ago with the Florida Marlins, for those who believe in that sort of thing, and he consistently has been a plus-6 or plus-7 defensive third baseman on the Fielding Bible's plus/minus system since he was traded to the Red Sox, for those who believe in that sort of thing.
This year, though, he's been atrocious. It's pretty obvious it's all because of the hip surgery he underwent in the offseason, but, still, he's been atrocious. He's a minus-22 on the Fielding Bible scale, good for 35th among third basemen. He's a minus-11.6 on the Ultimate Zone Rating scale, good for 18th among third basemen.
Charlie Finley pushed for a solution for such a problem in the early 1970s. It was called -- you guessed it -- the designated hitter. Edgar Martinez, the greatest designated hitter ever, was a terrific hitter who no longer could field because repeated knee injuries had robbed him of his mobility.
Lowell took David Ortiz's regular spot at designated hitter on Wednesday night -- and he drove in five of the team's six runs in the process. He didn't seem to mind DH'ing as much as other position players do, though he said it's not something he'd want to do every day.
"I actually loved it," he said. "I think I'd pull my hair out if I had to do it all year, but here and there, I enjoy it. For me, it's really a half-day off. ... After the game (on Tuesday), I could feel that this hip was a little more tired than this hip. I welcome it."
Ortiz, his three-run home run on Thursday notwithstanding, isn't hitting the way a designated hitter is supposed to hit. His OPS has slipped from 1.062 in June to .729 in July -- and with Jason Bay and Kevin Youkilis scuffling badly, too, the Red Sox need all the hitters they can get.
"Bottom line, and I said it a few days ago: If you're hitting, you're going to be in the lineup," Lowell said. "We need guys that hit to score runs. We're trying to put the best team out there. I would hope everyone's on (the same) page for that goal. I try to keep it simple. When I'm at the plate, I try to hit the ball hard. Things have been going pretty good lately, and I don't see any reason why it should stop."
They just can't afford to trade runs at the plate for runs in the field with lousy defense. The more Francona can get Lowell into his lineup as his designated hitter, the better.