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ON BASEBALL

Will sinking Lowe resurface in playoffs?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- We're back, it appears, to this: Derek Lowe is a guy you'd think twice about allowing to park your car, never mind start a playoff game.

Talk about accident-prone. After he lasted just 2 1/3 innings last night against the Devil Rays -- less than 24 hours after the Sox clinched a place in October -- the line on Lowe's last three starts reads: 8 1/3 IP, 21 H, 15 ER, 6 BB, 5 K, 16.20 ERA.

So, Derek Lowe, if you were the manager and it was your call to make, would you give the ball next week to Derek Lowe?

"That's kind of a crazy question," a subdued Lowe said while standing in front of his locker after the Sox had rallied from the 5-1 deficit Lowe created to beat the Devil Rays, 10-8, in 11 innings. "We've got [five] games to go. I imagine that's all people are talking about, who's pitching the first game, who's pitching the second game, the third, who's pitching the fourth. We could talk about it all day. None of us have answers. Everyone would like to be on the playoff roster, but you don't really know.

"I don't know what they base it on. Is it who we're playing? Who's the hot guy? I have one more start on Sunday to try to pitch better, and we'll go from there."

Admittedly, the Sox were a bit bleary-eyed after partying Monday night. But if there was one player on the team with incentive not to be distracted from the task at hand, it was Lowe, whose alleged zealous pursuit of the good life already makes him fodder for Internet chat boards and radio talk shows. But Lowe, with a chance to offer a resounding statement that he is ready to do his part in the postseason, was dismissed after 10 of the 14 batters he faced reached by hit or walk, putting the Sox in a four-run hole before the third inning was over.

"I just pitched poorly," he said. "It was a constant battle, with guys on base. It's one of those games you fight. I'm lucky it's not an individual sport, it's a team sport."

When Lowe was going badly early in the season, he defiantly reminded his detractors that he would be remembered not for how he started the season, but how he finished it. Reminded of his words last night, he said: "You hit the nail on the head. People will remember the last month as well as anything, and they should. A decision is going to be made at some point. I don't have any idea where they're going. All I know is we're going to the playoffs."

Lowe's struggles, which rival those of Javier Vazquez of the Yankees or Mark Mulder of the A's, renews the debate over what Terry Francona does when he meets with his staff tomorrow to chart his postseason plans. Beyond Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez, the rest of the rotation is a bit of a crapshoot. Bronson Arroyo, who pitched Monday's playoff clincher and is 6-2 with a 4.21 ERA since the All-Star break, would appear to be a lock, but what if Boston's first-round opponent is Oakland, which is batting .319 against Arroyo, with Mark Kotsay taking him deep twice and Eric Chavez once? The Twins would appear to be a much more palatable alternative; they're hitting just .172 against Arroyo.

Tim Wakefield appeared to be odd man out because of his 6-5, 5.99 record since the All-Star break, including an 0-3, 8.20 record in three September starts.

But investigate a little further, and you find that Wakefield has made a good accounting of himself against two prospective first-round opponents, the A's and Twins. Wakefield allowed the Twins just one run in 7 2/3 innings in a start June 24 at Fenway Park, which is where he'd likely be given the ball if Francona elects to use him against the Twins. He also pitched well in a start against the A's, holding them to three hits in seven scoreless innings.

And Yankees manager Joe Torre, whose team looms as a potential opponent in the ALCS if the teams advance, has said repeatedly he'd rather not have to traffic with the knuckleballer.

The Angels, who pounded Texas again last night, could sneak in, leaving Francona to choose between Wakefield (11.25 ERA vs. Anaheim) or Arroyo (9.72). Anyone want to see Schilling and Martinez throwing twice in Round 1, both on three days' rest? That option would appear to be tempting, though it's something the Sox always have stayed away from with Martinez, and Francona said again yesterday he wouldn't do it.

Lowe could have simplified things for Francona, but after an embarrassing one-inning meltdown in Yankee Stadium, an arduous 99 pitches (and one long Miggie Tejada home run) in five innings against the Orioles, and last night's stinker, he inspires little confidence in a Nation that keeps waiting for him to regain the form of the 20-game winner he was just two years ago. A big clue as to what has happened since then: In 2002, Lowe struck out a career-best 127 batters while walking just 48. After last night's two-walk, 0-whiff performance, Lowe has 70 walks (two fewer than the career-high 72 he walked last season) and 103 whiffs. When your ratio is tilting toward the bases on balls, that's a sure sign of trouble.

Pick up a bat against Lowe, and there was a good chance he'd make a .300 hitter out of you this season. Lefthanded hitters entered last night's game batting .296 against Lowe, righties .290. He has been dreadful in daylight (which is a good possibility for Game 3 or Game 4 in the ALDS), going 3-6 with an 8.44 ERA. And he hardly has done his best work against prospective playoff teams, with the exception of Oakland, against whom he is 2-0 with a 4.38 ERA. He is 1-1 with a 5.25 ERA vs. Anaheim, 0-1 with a 5.02 ERA against the Twins, and 2-3 with a 9.28 ERA against the Yankees.

Francona may wait until Wakefield and Lowe take one more turn before making a decision. He may well wait until it is determined whom the Sox are playing. But Lowe last night assured him of a headache much worse than any he might have had yesterday morning.

"Obviously we wish he had pitched better tonight," Francona said. "We'll sift through a lot of things. One thing I never, ever do is make decisions five minutes after a game. Because it never fails, your emotions, the game . . .

"You wake up in the morning and see things a lot clearer and you think things through a lot better."

Good luck.

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