Baseball the right choice for Lowe

Updated: March 11, 2003, 10:30 AM ET
Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) - Eastern Michigan basketball coach Ben Braun thought Derek Lowe was going to play for him. American League hitters wish Lowe had stuck with that plan.

Lowe, a standout basketball player at Edsel Ford High School in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, was set to attend nearby Eastern Michigan in 1991 on a scholarship.

But when the Seattle Mariners selected Lowe in the eighth round of the draft, the all-state hoops star opted for baseball. "I thought he was coming to Eastern Michigan until he signed a pro baseball contract," said Braun, now the head coach at California. "He's obviously having a very good season and a great career."

An All-Star closer with the Boston Red Sox before falling on hard times a year ago, the right-hander has emerged this season as one of baseball's most dominating starters.

After blanking the Tigers - a team Lowe idolized growing up - over six innings Wednesday in an 11-0 Boston win, the 29-year-old was tops in the AL with a 1.81 earned run average. He was 9-2, opponents were hitting a league-low .167 against him and he recorded a no-hitter against Tampa Bay on April 27.

"I never thought I would play baseball in the major leagues when I was growing up," he said. "I enjoyed playing a lot of sports, but never thought about playing at this level in any sport. But it's certainly a dream come true now that I'm here."

The ultra-versatile Lowe, who also starred in soccer and golf in high school, is the only pitcher in history to record a 40-save season prior to throwing a no-hitter.

"Derek is probably one of the best all-around athletes that ever came through Edsel Ford," said Carmine Morga, who has been a physical education teacher there for 30 years. "What's neat about Derek is that he excelled at all sports. He took up golf and was shooting in the high 30s (for nine holes)." As a youngster, Lowe would go to Tiger Stadium sporting his No. 34 jersey.

"Chet Lemon. He was my man. But then I started playing shortstop, and I wanted to be Alan Trammell," said Lowe, who was an all-league selection as a high school senior as a shortstop, not as a pitcher.

"He was a typical high school kid," said Pat Wyka, athletic director at Edsel Ford for 25 years. "He wasn't 100 percent focused. ... He did not have a good senior pitching season." But he was good enough to catch the eye of the Mariners' scouts.

Lowe bounced around the Seattle minor league system for several years before making his major league debut in 1997. He earned his first win June 6 of that year - at Tiger Stadium - an event he describes as "still the biggest thrill of mine."

He was traded to Boston the next month with catcher and fellow Michigan native Jason Varitek for reliever Heathcliff Slocumb. After an unimpressive 1998 in which he worked as both a starter and a reliever, Lowe caught on as a closer, saving 15 games for the Sox in 1999. By 2000, he was an All-Star, saving 42 games and recording a 2.56 ERA.

His 2001 season, though, was a different story. He was unable to close out games as he had the previous two seasons. Things got so bad that he was booed on Derek Lowe poster day at Fenway Park in August. When he blew a save against the Mariners and Boston dropped a 6-3 decision, the center field warning track was littered with posters.

By the end of the season, Lowe had blown six saves and posted a 4-10 record in relief.

After the team acquired Ugueth Urbina late last season to be the team's closer, Lowe asked then-manager Joe Kerrigan to give him another chance to start. He earned a win as a starter - and posted a 1.13 ERA in 16 innings. He challenged for a starting role this spring and blossomed in the role.

Standing a commanding 6-6 on the mound, Lowe can throw a change-up, a curveball and a pair of devastating fastballs - a cutter and a sinker.

"You rarely see guys hit the ball in the air, because he throws a nasty sinker with a velocity in the 87 to 91 mile-per-hour range," said teammate John Burkett, who has had his own success with a 7-0 record.

Lowe's sinker, which breaks vertically rather than horizontally, is one of the reasons he hasn't allowed a home run in his last 104 innings, the longest active streak in the majors.

"That's what Derek does. He gets ground balls, and he makes the infielders work," Red Sox outfielder Johnny Damon said. On Wednesday night - nearly five years to the day since earning his first win against the Tigers - Lowe worked quickly and efficiently, mixing up his pitches and keeping Detroit hitters off-balance.

He allowed only a pair of infield singles before exiting with an 11-run lead. Of his 69 pitches, 42 were strikes.

He got 15 ground balls from the 20 batters he faced, allowing only one ball to leave the infield.

"It was a Derek Lowe-kind of game. It's what we've come to expect from the kid," Boston manager Grady Little said. Lowe takes nothing for granted. He remembers how tough things were just last year.

So, for the time being, he's enjoying his success and celebrated his return to Motown.

"I don't think anybody should forget where they came from whether they're successful or not, famous or not," Lowe said. "Just because I'm a big-league ballplayer, that doesn't give me the right to big-time people, especially those who knew me as a kid.

"I think I'm the same person that I was back in the day. I don't think I'm special. I'm a baseball player, it's not like I save lives."


Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press