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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Hearts were sinking as pitcher unraveled

NEW YORK -- Derek Lowe is like Gump's proverbial box of chocolates: You never know what you're going to get.

In a performance that was downright Mickelsonesque, Lowe imploded on the Yankee Stadium mound in front of a national television audience yesterday. His head seemed to be somewhere in the swamps of Jersey as a parade of men in pinstripes rounded the bases. When Lowe walked the first batter in the second inning, after allowing five runs in the first, I expected an angry Curt Schilling to come to the mound to get the sad sinkerballer.

"No excuses, guys," said Lowe. "If I could find one, I'd throw something at you."

Lowe certainly deserves a mulligan. He entered the game having won five of his last six decisions, and his ERA was its lowest (4.91) since May 14. More than any Boston pitcher, he has reaped the benefits of the Orlando Cabrera infield. He's been more secure since the trading deadline passed and the Sox again are happy with their No. 3 starter.

But in the wake of yesterday's stinker, there might be a new argument regarding Terry Francona's playoff rotation. Talk-show debate in Boston last week featured lengthy discussions about whether Bronson Arroyo or Tim Wakefield should be bumped from the postseason plans. With Schilling and Pedro Martinez ready to pitch every fifth day, given the off days built into the playoffs, the Red Sox will need only four for fighting in October.

So what about Lowe? He has won more games (52) than any other pitcher in baseball since the start of the 2002 season, but can the Red Sox trust him this October? If you watched the first two innings yesterday, it's a legitimate question. But it's also reactionary and premature (which is what we do here in the toy department). Unless there's another no-show by Lowe between now and the end of the season, the veteran righty is certain to be part of the postseason plans.

Francona said he believes in Lowe.

"I just thought he had a real tough outing," said the manager. "I didn't think he wasn't focused. I wouldn't say that."

Lowe walked Derek Jeter, the first batter he faced. After Alex Rodriguez hit a sharp single, Lowe fanned Gary Sheffield. Hideki Matsui cracked a single to left to load the bases, then Lowe walked Bernie Williams on a 3-and-2 pitch, scoring Jeter.

There are times when it is apparent Lowe is unraveling. He falls and he can't get up. This was one of those times. The body language said it all as he angrily snatched Jason Varitek's return toss after ball four to Williams. The next pitch was a meatball to Jorge Posada, and the catcher smoked it to right-center for a two-run single. By this time, Lowe was gesturing in a manner reminiscent of Zero Mostel's Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof." Then came the mental errors. John Olerud hit a comebacker to Lowe, who turned and saw Williams head back to third. With Williams clearly set to return safely, the play called for Lowe to turn and get Olerud at first. Instead, the rattled righty tried to get Bernie at third. No chance. Bases loaded.

"No explanation for that," said Lowe. "I looked back to third. Once you do that, you're supposed to throw to first base. Hey, I dug the team a hole and it made for a long day."

Ruben Sierra followed the brain cramp with a hard hopper toward the first-base hole. Doug Mientkiewicz made a diving stab and threw to second for the out. Unfortunately, Lowe overran first base in his attempt to cover and Cabrera's relay sailed toward the railing for an error and an extra run.

Trailing, 5-0, Lowe walked Jeter again to start the second. Then A-Rod hit a hard hopper that caromed off Lowe's right ankle for a hit and gave the Sox a chance to remove him from the game with a shred of dignity. Lowe had a contusion of the lower right leg, and X-rays were negative. Too bad there were no tests to determine what was going on in his head.

"I love to pitch against this team," he said. "But when you go out there with non-competitive stuff, it makes for a long day. I struggled from pitch one. The biggest frustration is the non-competitiveness of the game. It was like 8-0 before the fourth or fifth out."

This was an official butt-kicking, a horror show witnessed by Sox fan Stephen King. The Yankees batted around in each of the first two innings. The Sox had a pitcher warming up with one out in the first. The Yankees led, 8-0, with no outs in the second. A-Rod (Elvin Hayes-like, he seems to be at his best when it matters least) hit a three-run homer in the garbage-time fifth to make it 13-0. And the Sox still didn't have a hit.

David Ortiz's solo homer in the seventh killed the no-hitter, but there was little dignity for the Sox in the late innings. While the rains came and fans chanted "1918," first baseman David McCarty warmed up in the bullpen for Boston. Not good, ladies and gents. The final was 14-4.

So now the Sox trail the Yankees again by 3 1/2 games with only 15 to play. If Martinez doesn't beat New York today, the Sox realistically can give up the Quixotic hope of totally erasing that 10 1/2-game deficit of mid-August.

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

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