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Lowell still in tough position

His first instinct has conditions

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / March 20, 2010

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — As Mike Lowell stood by a back field at the minor league complex awaiting his fifth at-bat of the afternoon, he marveled at the more than half-dozen media members there solely to watch him hit. Having maintained silence on his defense at first base to his health to his offense, Lowell agreed to talk. But there was a condition: No questions about his situation with the Red Sox.

Although Lowell wanted to avoid talking about being supplanted at third by Adrian Beltre and his place on the trading block, he drifted toward the topic yesterday.

When asked about his health, Lowell said, “I don’t worry about playing that one day, it’s the 100th game. Although, under my circumstances, I might not see 100 games.

“In a sense I’ve been like, ‘Does it really matter?’ But I think it’s still my job to be ready, because you never know what’s going to happen. I don’t want to be in a position where I’m just going to sulk. You never know. Crazy things happen.’’

Despite the concerns about whether his hip can withstand the rigors of everyday play, Lowell has been working to make the transition across the diamond. He has been taking ground balls with the coaching staff, trying to excel at first base the way he did at third.

And he’s had nightmares about the move.

“First is pretty comfortable,’’ Lowell said. “The responsibilities race through my mind. I know Nomar [Garciaparra] had a recurring dream [when he moved to first], but I had a recurring dream that I wouldn’t cover first on a ground ball. I’m always, ‘Cover first, cover first, cover first.’ I don’t think I’m going to miss it. But there’s the little things, like backing up a throw on a sure double, on a possible triple being that trail guy, those are the things that I’m not used to.’’

He has started to understand the intricacies of the position. His only experience there was four games in the minors in 1998, a hedge in case of injury, Lowell recalled. He had no idea what to do.

This time it’s different.

“We have the luxury of if I want to take 300 ground balls I can,’’ he said. “That’s where we’re spoiled in the big leagues. If one coach is tired, you can get the other one.’’

At this point, though, defense is not a concern. Lowell doesn’t sound comfortable with his health, nor does he feel great at the plate. For additional at-bats, Lowell served as the designated hitter in minor league games for Salem and Greenville yesterday, going 2 for 4 with a walk, a bloop single, and a home run to left off a righthander. His first four at-bats were against lefthanders.

“I think the biggest physical test for me is going to be the running, just to see how long it can feel [OK], how good and how long it can feel,’’ he said. “That’s a big question mark.’’

Asked if his hip remained an issue, he said, “I think I’ve worried about it ever since I threw that ball in Tampa Bay [in 2008] and I felt something pop. It feels much better than it did last year. So I’ve got to bank on that, at least.’’

Lowell believes his surgically repaired right thumb is structurally fine. He wanted the test of getting jammed, something the Rays’ Wade Davis provided in Tuesday’s game.

“I don’t think the thumb is much of an issue,’’ manager Terry Francona said.

As for his next step, the manager said, “We need to start building him up a little bit. But I don’t think it’s in his best interest right away to go out there and pound on it.’’

If Lowell remains with the Sox, there might not be as much stress on his body as he would like. Lowell said he should be ready for Opening Day, but the only spot for him is on the bench. Although he wouldn’t discuss it, that’s not his preference.

Lowell did talk about the difficulties he’ll encounter as a backup. Like his transition on defense and his health, it will take adjustments. Even though Lowell has proven he can take a long layoff and still be productive at the plate, if he remains with the Sox, that ability will be tested.

“There’s a big difference when you get spring training at-bats, April, May at-bats, you take 20 days off, you come back,’’ Lowell said. “You start the season without getting at-bats — that’s why role guys don’t hit .320. I think if you get a guy that hits a solid .250, he’s viewed as an asset. Being in a role where I don’t start the season playing everyday, I honestly have never been in that situation, so I don’t know.’’

Peter Abraham of the Globe staff contributed; Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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