Derek Lowe was in for a big payday. He could start (21-8 in 2002). He could relieve (42 saves in 200).
He could finish (see Oakland Athletics, 2003 ALDS).
And now he was entering his free agent season. Yes, 2004 was going to be the year. The year it fell apart.
Lowe (14-12 in the regular season) hovered near the .500 mark most of the season, mixing in stellar starts with complete duds. Then came the stinker.
With the Red Sox closing in on their season-long pursuit of the Yankees -- they opened a three-game weekend series in the Bronx with an exhilarating 3-2 win with two runs off Mariano Rivera in the ninth -- Lowe took the hill Sept. 18 with the Sox 3 games behind their archrivals.
What transpired was the low point of Lowe's season. He faced 11 batters, got three outs, allowed seven runs, and in one inning-plus of a 14-4 loss he managed to derail the momentum the Sox had gained the night before.
"No excuses guys," Lowe said. "If I could find one, I'd throw something at you."
He wasn't included in the postseason starting rotation. Payday? He'd be lucky to get a paycut.
When the Red Sox blew a five-run lead in the seventh inning against the Angels in Game 3 of the Division Series at Fenway Park, a red flag went up. The bullpen was taxed. Manager Terry Francona went to the well, using closer Keith Foulke for 1 2/3 innings to get to the 10th. Is there anyone left in the bullpen to get outs?
On came Lowe. He started the inning with theatrics: a one-out walk, a sacrifice, an infield hit. Runners were at the corners and the Angels had to win. Lowe induced a grouder to short to end the threat, David Ortiz hit a two-run homer in the home half, and the Sox advanced to the ALCS to face the Yankees.
`'I thought it was fitting," Francona said of his winning pitcher. "Here is a guy we send to the bullpen . . . I think it was very fitting he got the win."
Suddenly the season had turned around. Lowe got the start in a do-or-die Game 4 against the Yankees (a solid 5 1/3 innings, 6 hits, 3 runs) and the improbable Game 7 win (a gem overshadowed by the tremendous comeback).
His confidence had returned in Game 7, his sinkerball untouchable, his offspeed stuff almost unhittable -- the Yankees managed one hit and one run off Lowe in six defiant innings.
But Lowe saved his piece de resistance for the World Series. After masterpieces by aces by Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez, Lowe took the mound against the Cardinals in Game 4 with his team up, 3-0, and 86 years of futility in the balance.
Lowe was scintillating in seven innings of brilliance (three hits, no runs). Banished to the bullpen a month ago, a disappointing afterthought heading into the playoffs, he had resurrected himself on the grandest stage in baseball.
"He didn't put his tail between his legs," Francona said. "He went out and competed."
Think there will be a market for the first pitcher to clinch three series in the postseason?