Unless your name is Dave Roberts, history usually ignores pinch-runners. That changed on Tuesday in an incredibly unexpected fashion.
Mike Lowell was pressed into precisely that role in the bottom of the second inning on Tuesday, after Kevin Youkilis used a helmet by way of introduction to Rick Porcello after getting drilled by a pitch. With Youkilis ejected, the Sox needed a pinch-runner and replacement at third base.
At first it seemed a joke. Lowell – a man 10 months removed from right hip surgery – a pinch runner? When on earth was the last time that happened?
It was just the second time in Lowell’s career that he had been summoned to replace another baserunner. The first one came when then-Yankees rookie Lowell made his way into his seventh career game, on Sept. 26, 1998. He came into the eighth inning to replace Tim Raines – yes, he of 808 career steals, fifth all time – with the Yankees leading 3-0 en route to their 113th win of that year.
“I was a call-up,” said Lowell. “They probably didn’t want Rock to blow out a hammie.”
On Tuesday, Lowell ended up scoring when David Ortiz singled and Jason Bay launched a three-run blast to left, Bay’s third longball in his last four games. But Lowell’s evening became far more remarkable following that first home-run jog from second to home.
Lowell stepped to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the third of a game that stood tied, 3-3. He jumped on a 3-1 fastball from Tigers long man Chris Lambert, sending a 90 mph fastball over the Wall for his 12th homer of the year and providing the Sox with a one-run lead.
He repeated the feat in the bottom of the fifth, mauling Lambert’s hanging curve and sending it over the Monster Seats for his second homer of the game (his 13th career multi-homer game and second with the Sox, the last having come against the Yankees on April 22, 2007). Lowell – who wasn’t even scheduled to start – proved the biggest contributor in the Sox’ 7-5 win over the Tigers. (Recap.)
The blasts inspired a flurry of “When did that last happen?” discoveries (more on that in a bit). But, perhaps more importantly, they underscored what has been a regular theme of the second half. Lowell, despite limited playing time, is killing the ball.
He leads the Sox in several offensive categories since the All-Star break, including average (.368), slugging (.614), OPS (1.047) and RBIs (16). He ranks second to Youkilis in OBP (.439). In 17 games, he has three homers.
Of course, that production has occurred at a time when Lowell’s playing time has been cut. Since Victor Martinez joined the Sox on Aug. 1, Lowell has been in the starting lineup for five of his team’s 10 games.
He has been the third baseman for just three of them and the D.H. for the other two. That Lowell has clearly become the second option at third base, behind Youkilis, reflects the team's concerns about his significantly diminished range as he continues his recovery from hip surgery.
Given his performance, it seems fair to wonder whether the veteran’s productivity is a result of rest for his hip. But Sox manager Terry Francona refused to suggest that off days were at the heart of Lowell’s contributions.
“I don’t think we need to take credit for him swinging the bat well,” said Francona. “He’s been a good hitter for a lot of years. I have a feeling his hip hopefully feels a little bit better. I think he would like to play more. I completely understand that. I would hope his hip feels better as he doesn’t grind on it as much, but I don’t think we need to take credit for him being a good hitter. He’s been that for a while.”
But will he be able to sustain his production in a limited role? Lowell, for one, questioned whether he can.
Lowell admitted that he has found it "very difficult" to remain sharp while facing diminished playing time. The fact that he has performed well despite having to check to see if his name is in the lineup – hitting .333 with a .440 OBP, 1.107 OPS, two homers and seven runs batted in this month – has not made his part-time predicament any less challenging.
"You kind of find yourself in a little bit of a groove and you kind of want to continue that day after day," he continued. "It is a challenge and it’s one for me that I’m unfamiliar with...You don’t feel totally in sync when you don’t play for a couple days."
While he acknowledges that he is still slowed by surgery on his right hip that took place in October, and does not believe that he will regain his running speed (such as it is) until the offseason, Lowell said that he feels strong physically. Given his performance at the plate, the third baseman (who has also received some starts as a designated hitter) seems puzzled and dismayed that his playing time has been irregular this month.
With the arrivals of Martinez and Casey Kotchman at the trade deadline, the Sox have six players (Lowell, Youkilis, Martinez, Kotchman, David Ortiz, Jason Varitek) splitting at-bats at four positions: first base, third base, catcher and designated hitter. Lowell made clear that, based on his performance, he feels that he deserves more playing time.
"It at least feels good that I’m swinging a good bat. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want good bats in your lineup," said Lowell. "When you’re swinging the bat well, I think you want to play every day. I stand by that."
Thus far, Lowell has been on the short end of the playing time stick since the addition of Martinez. But one must wonder: should he be?
Youkilis, of course, is a lineup fixture, and deservedly so. The corner infielder is hitting .349/.440/.558/.998 in the second half.
Martinez has played 10 of the Sox’ 11 games since coming from Cleveland, and his placement in the third spot of the lineup suggests that Boston views him as the sort of lineup centerpiece who will play more often than not.
That being the case, one wonders whether the Sox might or even should squeeze the playing time of either D.H. Ortiz (with Lowell subbing for him) or Jason Varitek (with Martinez serving as catcher, Youkilis at first and Lowell at third) to field the best possible lineup.
In the second half, Ortiz is hitting .212 with a .269 OBP and .634 OPS. Varitek has been even worse, hitting .164/.271/.501.
“I have to take the satisfaction that I’ve been swinging the bat really well,” said Lowell. “I think we’re kind of searching for that offensive lineup that will score runs. Anyone swinging the bat well doesn’t ever want to come out of the lineup. I take it for what it is, but I’m trying to make their decision as tough as possible.”
Here are some other tutorials that took place in the Sox’ second straight victory:
LOWELL MADE SOME INCREDIBLE CONTRIBUTIONS…ESPECIALLY FOR A PINCH-RUNNER
The machine that is Gary From Chapel Hill helped to put in perspective the amazing evening by “pinch-runner” Lowell. Some highlights:
--Lowell became the third player since 1954 to hit at least two homers in a game he entered as a pinch-runner, joining former Twin Craig Kusick (May 8, 1979) and erstwhile Indians great Chuck Essegian (June 11, 1961).
--Lowell became the first Red Sox batter to hit two homers in a game he started on the bench since Joe Foy accomplished the feat on June 9, 1967.
--Lowell became the 22nd player, and first Red Sox, to score three runs in a game he entered as a pinch-runner since 1954. The last one to do so is also currently in the Red Sox system, though PawSox centerfielder Brian Anderson was still with the White Sox when he accomplished the feat this May 25.
--Lowell became the 54th big-leaguer since 1954 to hit two homers in a game he didn’t start.
--The Red Sox were victims of a two-homer game from a sub just last year, on Sept. 26, when the Yankees' Cody Ransom did the trick in the fourth and fifth innings after replacing Derek Jeter.
--Detroit was last on the receiving end of a two-homer game from a non-starter in 1987, when Minnesota's Mark Salas did it. It actually happened twice in that season against the Tigers (Mark Ryal of Cal also did it). Both incidents came at Tiger Stadium.
JASON BAY’S FORTUNES ARE TURNING
With the Sox trailing, 3-0, in the bottom of the second, Jason Bay changed the complexion of the game with a single swing of the bat. With two on and none out, the left-fielder blasted his third homer in four games, a rousing shot on an 88 mph fastball that cleared the Monster Seats.
Yet it was another moment that might have better highlighted his improved lot in life over the past few days.
In 48 games from June 3 to July 30, it seemed that the well of lucky hits had run dry on Bay. He hit .212 with a .687 OPS. Entering Tuesday, he had just one multi-hit game in his prior 23 contests.
On Tuesday, during a 2-for-4 night, Bay intermingled good fortune with his renewed power surge. In the bottom of the eighth, a fastball down and away cracked his bat on contact. Yet the otherwise-unimpressive blooper found a patch of turf in right field for a weak single.
“That was actually my most gratifying hit the last two days,” said Bay. “To have that fall in was a little sigh or relief, like, ‘There is a baseball god, and he is watching me.’ I wasn’t ruing the baseball gods, but I was just making sure they were still there.”
That affirmation was significant to Bay. So, too, was the fact that he’s been putting excellent swings on the ball in recent days. In particular, in the two games against the Tigers, he has yanked two homers down the left-field line, and just missed another when he drove a ball to the triangle that fell just short of the 420 foot sign for an out.
“You realize it’s been almost two months where you’ve been not as productive as you can be,” said Bay. “Two games doesn’t make this all of a sudden a huge turnaround. But at the same time, the last couple days are the best I’ve felt in a long time.”
THE ROTATION HAS TAKEN A RIGHT TURN
The Red Sox rotation made a strong case that it needed reinforcements in the days leading up to and following the trading deadline. In the 11 games from July 26 through August 6, Boston starters had a 3-4 record and 7.12 ERA.
Since then, however, the Sox have enjoyed one of their better turns of the rotation this year. Including Junichi Tazawa’s solid debut (5 innings, 3 runs, 1 earned, 6 strikeouts), the team has enjoyed five straight outings in which their starters have allowed three or fewer earned runs and turned in five or more innings.
In that span, the rotation has a 2.03 ERA. Its 1-1 record in that time reflects entirely on the failure of the offense to provide run support in New York.
It has been a tough period for the Sox to find consistency from their rotation, thanks to the absence since the All-Star break of Tim Wakefield, the horrific performances of John Smoltz and the roller coaster existences of Clay Buchholz and Brad Penny. But for at least one turn of the rotation, the Sox got what they needed from everyone who took the mound in the first for them.
“Let’s face it. Every team, regardless of the division or the league, it starts with starting pitching to create that consistency,” said pitching coach John Farrell. “We know that with the guys we’ve got in there, and with Wake banged up a little bit and Daisuke (Matsuzaka) on the mend, stepping in as Junichi did tonight is a huge thing for us.”
Tazawa’s performance came as the Sox moved closer to Wakefield’s return. The knuckleballer, following his simulated outing on Monday, is scheduled to pitch for Triple-A Pawtucket in Gwinnett County on Saturday. If all goes well in the three- to four-inning outing, Wakefield would then be ready to return to the rotation next week.
(For more on Wakefield’s first minor-league appearance since 1995, read Rob Bradford’s story.)
The Sox received further encouragement with the news that Matsuzaka had thrown well in a 40-pitch bullpen session in Fort Myers, with scheduled follow-ups on Friday (55 pitches) and next Monday (65 pitches).
THE RED SOX BULLPEN IS BEING HELD TOGETHER BY DUCT TAPE (AND TAKASHI SAITO)
A lot has been asked of the Red Sox bullpen in recent days. In the nine games since Aug. 2, the team is averaging a shocking four relief innings per game. The workload has taken a toll.
The Sox were trying to avoid Hideki Okajima on Tuesday, since the reliever is dealing with a stiff neck. The team wanted to avoid both Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez if possible, since both had already pitched in five games during that stretch.
When Tazawa struggled through the first inning on 35 pitches, potential disaster loomed.
“Junichi, in that first inning, it could have gotten away from him. It could have gotten away from us,” said Farrell. “That would have created a lot of havoc in our bullpen going forward.”
Instead, his ability to go five allowed the Sox bullpen to stretch across the final four innings of the game – barely. Fernando Cabrera delivered a scoreless sixth inning in his Boston debut.
Takashi Saito warmed up and prepared to enter the game prior to a rain delay that halted play just before the start of the seventh. The fact that he was able loosen up again following an 81-minute rain delay and then delivery one of his most dominating innings of the year in a 1-2-3 sixth was a quietly monumental development.
“I thought what Saito did was exceptional because we were at a point there where if we don’t send Sammy back out, he’d already been announced (into the game) and if he can’t pitch we’re going to have to stretch someone that we don’t want to or not have anyone behind (Jonathan Papelbon),” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “Sammy goes out and has a 1-2-3 inning, which was probably another performance that goes under that radar that I hope doesn’t.”
Saito’s inning was huge. It allowed the Sox to limit Daniel Bard to one inning, a key development since the rookie had pitched on Sunday and then warmed up in Monday’s game. Jonathan Papelbon, likewise, had warmed up on Sunday before recording a four-out save on Monday. The Sox had little alternative but to put him into Tuesday’s game, even though it was a non-save situation.
Entrusted with a 7-3 lead, Papelbon was not at his dominating best. But, even though he allowed a double and two-run homer, he did strike out three Tigers, allowing the Sox to hold on to their 7-5 victory.
“A win is a win,” said Francona, “and Pap understands that more than most, which is good.”