Mike Lowell has arguably been the Red Sox best player since the All-Star break. His 1.026 OPS, .361 batting average, and .608 slugging percentage all lead the team. He has six home runs and 24 RBI, including the Hobbsian three-run jack he launched on to Landsdowne Street on Monday night.
“Probably a little underrated team MVP candidate,” Jason Bay said. “Every time he has gotten a chance to play, he’s produced.”
Every time he has gotten a chance to play. Those are key words. Lowell has played in 27 of 36 games since the break. He might be the Red Sox best hitter over the past five and a half weeks, but he has sat out a full quarter of the games.
"It's a weird setup we have right now," he said before last night's 12-8 Red Sox win.
The Red Sox have a logjam of capable hitters, and his surgically repaired hip makes him the odd man out more often than his numbers suggest and more often than he would like.
“I don’t mind a day here and there,” Lowell said. “But I don’t think I need as many as I’ve gotten. It’s more a product of what we have on the roster. [Lowell’s hip] feels good. I haven’t felt any setbacks. I thought the shot did a good job and I’ve been able to maintain as well as I could.”
Lowell understands the challenge manager Terry Francona faces divvying out playing time, but he also worries the current constitution of the Red Sox roster may prove detrimental to some hitters. Every day, two players from the grouping of Lowell, David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, Victor Martinez, Jason Varitek, and Casey Kotchman must remain out of the starting lineup.
“I think everyone thinks it’s a good problem to have,” Lowell said. “But when two regulars sit all the time, you are taking rhythm away from someone. With days off and possible injuries, I understand the depth. I don’t know if that works for a whole year.”
An everyday player for the bulk of his career, sitting out in the midst of a hot streak has felt odd for Lowell. On Saturday, he came to Fenway Park carrying a six-game hitting streak and a .931 OPS in his previous eight games. And yet, he sat. Lowell got back into the lineup on Sunday and went 2 for 4 with a double, but he said the days off could make it difficult to maintain rhythm at the plate.
“It can,” Lowell said. “You definitely have to work a little harder keeping yourself ready. Every time you’re swinging the bat well, you want to be playing. It’s a weird set up we have right now.”
Francona devotes extensive time and thought to preparing the lineup and believes it is not a problem. On Sunday, he corrected a reporter who referred to deciding on playing time as an “issue.” Lowell said he keeps an open dialogue with Francona, but also said it is natural for any everyday player to disagree on days he does not see his name.
“We talk all the time,” Lowell said. “I don’t think he would expect anyone to be smiling if they’re not playing. That doesn’t mean you don’t want the team to do well. But I think you definitely want to be out there. I know David wanted to be playing [Sunday]. Anyone who is swinging well, you want to maximize. That’s the hard part about it.”
When Lowell talked about his playing situation, he did not come off as bitter or angry. Lowell said has drawn no motivation from the lineup situation. He is not hitting to make a point. He is hitting to make the playoffs.
“Putting up and numbers and being able to contribute motivates me,” Lowell said. “Because I think anyone that’s in my position – David, myself – when we’re swinging the bats well, we can be big contributors to this team. I don’t think the situation itself is what’s driving me. What’s driving me is to try to get to the postseason.
"You know, we got a real race going on.”