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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Hurler sinking to an all-time low

ATLANTA -- While we're on the subject of trading All-Star talents who are in their walk year, let's not forget Derek Lowe.

Of course, the market would not be good for the sinkerball specialist at this hour. D-Lowe's value just dropped B-Lowe the Mendoza Line. He is 6-8 with a 6.02 ERA. He's allowed 110 hits and 38 walks in 86 2/3 innings while striking out 41. He represents a bad gamble by agent Scott Boras. The price is going down every day, which might be contributing to Lowe's woes.

Lowe's Fourth of July meltdown yesterday was exactly what the Red Sox did not need at the end of their road trip from hell. He was cruising along with a 4-1 lead in the fifth when he came apart like a cardboard box in a monsoon. Before the inning was over, Lowe was in the showers and the Sox trailed by the appropriate (and final) score of 10-4. As in over and out.

Thus the Sox finished their 1-5 road trip in the same horrible fashion that marked their Gore Tour through New York. They return to Fenway tomorrow night for the midpoint of the season (game No. 81) with a record of 43-37. They are three games under .500 since May Day. The Chasing Steinbrenner dream is over (yesterday was George's 74th birthday, but the Sox' gift arrived a few days early), Boston is 2 1/2 games ahead of Tampa Bay, and there's blood in the water of the Charles.

Most losses are team efforts, but yesterday's embarrassment falls on the wide shoulders of the happy-go-lucky righty who is hands-down the biggest disappointment of the first half of this season of high expectations.

It looked like this one was in the bag. Truly. Lowe had given up just three hits in the first four innings, retiring the initial seven batters in order. This was going to be a second straight win for the Sox and a momentum-builder for the return home to the ever-growing fellowship of the miserable.

Then came the frightful fifth. Lowe got ahead of Andruw Jones, 0-2, then walked the Atlanta center fielder. Charles Thomas was next and he bounced a ball off the plate that didn't come down in front of second baseman Mark Bellhorn until both runners were safe. Bad luck.

This is when Lowe lost it. More than any Sox pitcher, he becomes unglued at the first sign of trouble. So instead of bearing down and dominating Eddie Perez, the .197-batting No. 8 hitter, he walked the catcher on four pitches.

With the bases loaded and no outs, pitching coach Dave Wallace visited the mound. Lowe got pitcher Mike Hampton to ground into a force play, but he would not record another out. In rapid-fire sequence, Rafael Furcal singled to left on an 0-2 pitch, Nick Green singled to left, J.D. Drew roped a double to center, and Chipper Jones crushed an opposite-field homer to left. Each ball was hit harder than the one before.

Trailing, 8-4, with Lowe again demonstrating his frustrations, somebody finally nudged Terry Francona in the dugout and the manager came out to get his pitcher. Way too late. Captain Francona had just watched the Sox tanker crash ashore and there was oil all over the coastline by the time he reacted to the situation. In fairness, the spontaneity of Lowe's implosion made it almost impossible to have another hurler ready. This might have been a time to feign an injury.

In a stop-the-presses moment, Francona made no effort to cover for his player -- an indication of how low Lowe's stock has fallen.

"We got a cushion and once things started going bad, he didn't come close to stopping the bleeding," said Francona. "At some point he has to do it.

"It's happened a lot. Too much. Today we're in a game where we need to win desperately and come off a horrible road trip with a chance to win two in a row, but one inning and the game is out of reach."

Asked if Lowe "laments" when things go wrong on the mound, the manager answered, "yes." Francona said he had lefthander Jimmy Anderson warming up when the bases were loaded, but did not want to go to the thin bullpen with the game still on the line.

"For us to win that game, he needed to get through that," said the manager. ". . . nobody wants to look like a dumb-ass."

The Sox were dead-ass after the fatal fifth. In the seventh, Bellhorn failed to go from first to third on a single to right by Nomar Garciaparra. Then Manny Ramirez took a called third strike. Time to go to the airport. Too bad a rain delay forced Boston's Lost Boys to hang around an extra 34 minutes in the bottom of the eighth.

Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein watched the holiday carnage from the press box and it's clear that the front office must do something drastic soon to shake up this team.

"If we reach a point of pure desperation, we'll make change for change's sake," said Epstein. "But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. We're on the phone all the time. But we can't conjure something out of nothing. We're not going to do something that hurts our chances the rest of the way."

Anything to say about Lowe's performance?

"I shouldn't comment," said Epstein. "You saw it."

Lowe did not make himself available to the media. Didn't have to. His performance spoke for itself.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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