The home clubhouse at Fenway Park had all but emptied when Mike Lowell limped back toward his locker early this morning, his head hanging, his spirit sagging. The Red Sox third baseman is a shell of himself now. And he knows it.
(John Bohn / Globe Staff)
And so this is what it has come to for the third baseman of the Red Sox: He cannot even keep track of the hurt anymore. Hobbled by a right hip injury that will require surgery at the end of the season -- whenever that is -- Lowell went 0 for 4 while playing 10 innings in the Red Sox' 5-4 loss to the Los Angeles Angels at Fenway Park in an interminable Game 3 of the American League Division Series. Lowell drew a walk in his fifth and final plate appearance of the night when he took a borderline, hair-splitting pitch by Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez, a fitting development given the circumstances.
Don't you see?
Mike Lowell can barely walk.
After the game, while struggling to even put on his pants, Lowell declined to speculate as to whether he would be back in the lineup tonight for Game 4. Of course, we all know he won't be. And at this stage, we have to wonder if the Red Sox have exhausted everything they can from a third baseman who really should not be on the field.
There is no shame in that.
Not under the circumstances.
"I don't know. We'll see," Lowell said when asked about his prospects of playing. "A lot will hinge on [this morning]."
The Red Sox still lead this ALDS against the Los Angeles Angels, but there were worries nonetheless last night in what was another October epic at Fenway. The greater issues from this game did not center on defeat in what is now a 2-1 Sox series edge; rather, the concerns from this game came from whatever erosive effect the game had on a Sox club that was already ailing before spending an astonishing amount of energy.
Pitching for the first time in roughly two weeks, Josh Beckett needed 106 pitches to get through five laborious innings and hardly looked like the man who has owned October. Jonathan Papelbon pitched two innings for the second time in three days, his availability for Game 4 dubbed "a question mark" by his pitching coach, John Farrell. Windup toy Dustin Pedroia is 0 for 13 in the series and now has played in 160 games this year, amassing 666 at-bats on a 5-foot-8-inch frame that must have a breaking point.
And then there is Lowell, the consummate professional, who continues to take his place in the field and the lineup despite every indication that he should not.
The Red Sox knew this was coming with Lowell, especially after he aggravated a hip injury on a field-and-throw bunt in a series at Tropicana Field last month. Even if things go right, the play may end up costing Lowell another game at the Trop. Prior to this series against the Angels, one member of the Boston organization privately indicated that the club felt better about the chances of getting contributions from outfielder J.D. Drew (back) than it did from Lowell, which was a comment solely on what appeared to be the deteriorating condition of Lowell's right hip.
Today, with no hesitation, we can say it with relative certainty: Lowell is getting worse. Even in the field, his lateral mobility is hindered greatly. Last night, he dove for one ball that glanced off his glove and into left field for a single, and there is no way of knowing for sure that a healthy Lowell would have made the play. But even he seems to be questioning things himself at the moment, and he is especially candid when the cameras are off and the crowds have dissipated.
"Hurtin'," he said upon returning to his locker after the game. "It's been a struggle."
Of course, the Red Sox knew this was coming, and here is the good news: in this series, the Sox already have won without him. In Game 2, Lowell sat as Kevin Youkilis played third and Mark Kotsay played first, and the Sox claimed a dramatic win when Drew launched a game-winning home run off Rodriguez in the top of the ninth inning. Following the game, Lowell spoke of Youkilis's play at third base and made an unsolicited point to state that was looking forward to playing in Game 3 Sunday, a night the Sox might have been able to clinch their fourth trip to the American League Championship Series in the last six years.
As it turned out, the Red Sox did not clinch last night, though that is only part of this story. After the game, Lowell said nothing about the prospects of being on the field for Game 4. Lowell emphasized that the loss was not "downer" because "most people would have been surprised if we swept the Angels," and, as usual, the typically level-headed third baseman was right. But Lowell did not talk about the chances of being on the field for the potential victory this time, and anyone who had the time to remain in the home clubhouse early this morning did not need to ask why.
Only a moment earlier, after emerging from the shower and trainer's area, Lowell simply could not reach down to pull up his pants. In order to get dressed, he had to brace himself on a chair. The Most Valuable Player of the 2007 World Series moved slowly and deliberately, and gone was the self-deprecating wit that has become part of Lowell's treatment for dealing with the pain.
This time, there were no jokes and no smiles.
For those of us on the outside, when Lowell is both on the field and off, it even hurts to watch.
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