SAN FRANCISCO – The implausibility of the Braves making it back to the postseason despite a cartoon-like series of medical pitfalls and a lineup seemingly written in wet sand – Look out! Wave! – is dwarfed by only this development: Derek Lowe has gone from a $60 million mistake to this team’s possible key.
Mistake might be a slight overstatement. Lowe hasn’t been awful. But when a pitcher is given free-agent dollars that scream, “Ace,” and then goes 15-10 with a 4.67 ERA, there’s going to be criticism.
There also are going to be trade talks. Or as general manager Frank Wren said of this past winter in his best non-denial denial: “We were in the mode that we wanted to explore every possibility.”
The best trade the Braves never made? It sounds strange, but consider this: The Braves are not playing their first playoff game since 2005 Thursday night against San Francisco without Lowe. They don’t fall over the finish line and land in a wild-card nirvana if he is not going 5-0 in September with a ridiculous series of starts – totals: 29 strikeouts, three walks, 1.17 ERA in 30 1/3 innings – that didn’t remotely resemble any previous portion of his Atlanta employment.
In July and August, Lowe was 2-6 with a 4.52 ERA in 11 starts.
In September, he was sprinkled with pixie dust and morphed into Whitey Ford.
“The way September went was the way you kind of hoped and envisioned you’d be pitching every month,” Lowe said Wednesday.
Some of Lowe’s problems were physical. He has a bone chip in his right elbow that had been bothering him for six weeks. Finally, after a start against Florida on Aug. 29, during which it took Lowe 23 pitches to record an out and he allowed five runs in three innings, he knew he couldn’t continue. So he got a pain-killing injection in his elbow and missed a start.
But some of the issues clearly were mental.
Wren, when asked if he believed Lowe struggled trying to live up to the four-year, $60 million contract, said: “I don’t think so. He has signed big contracts before. But it’s like anything else. You come into a new situation, and sometimes it can snowball on you. I just think when he came back, he kind of got a fresh start.”
None of Lowe’s wins down the stretch came against premium competition. The opponents: Pittsburgh, Washington, New York, Washington, Florida. But the 5-1 win over the Marlins, during which he allowed one run and struck out nine in 5 2/3 innings Sept. 29, was particularly impressive because he was coming off three days’ rest.
The turnaround also led to a drop in Wren’s Tylenol consumption. He has been flogged for the signings of Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami. (Alas, the beatings over Kawakami continue.)
Wren again: “I just think that over the course of this season and especially the last month, Derek’s kind of found himself. He’s turned back into the Derek Lowe we knew for so many years, and we felt he had the ability to beat anyone. He’s got that old knack back.”
If pressure from the contract got to Lowe, he’s not going to say. He says his mental and physical approach never has changed. He says “Others look at that break I had as a turning point, but I don’t see it that way.” And then he talked about being given counsel from pitching coach Roger McDowell, going into the game against the Nationals with a different game plan and getting on a roll when it worked.
“This game is about confidence,” he said. “It just steamrolled in the right direction.”
He’s on a nice postseason roll, as well. When he was with the Red Sox in 2004, Lowe started the seventh game of the ALCS against the Yankees — and won, allowing one run and one hit in six innings. He then started Game 4 of the World Series against St. Louis — and won, throwing seven scoreless innings. In his past six postseason starts, he is 3-1 with a 2.86 ERA.
“The biggest thing in the playoffs,” he said, “is how quick can you control your emotions.”
A month ago, those emotions were somewhere else. In the Braves’ big picture, so was Derek Lowe.