Lowe has been known to play pickup basketball games at public courts in cities throughout the American League. He once skipped out of the visitors' clubhouse at Yankee Stadium for a full-court run in a Bronx park across the street. He's also a six-handicap golfer with a knack for helicoptering clubs. "I don't get ticked off playing baseball like I do in golf," Lowe says. "In baseball if you do everything right, you'll make a good pitch, and chances are you'll get the guy out. In golf you can do everything right, and maybe the ball hits the top of the bunker and rolls in. Luckily, the Titleist people take care of us. I'll tell them, 'I need a new driver.' And they'll go, 'Didn't you just get one?' And I'll say, 'Oh, yeah. It's on the bottom of a lake on the 12th hole somewhere in California.' "
Says infielder Lou Merloni, a native of Framingham, Mass., "If Derek were a girl, people would tell blonde jokes about him. But you know what? In Boston nothing's tougher than blowing games to the Yankees. He stood there and took the heat last year. He said, 'Right now I'm horrible.' He never hid from the media."
Pitching solely in relief, Lowe suffered losses in five of his first 11 appearances last season. When the Yankees beat him in August, he was 4-10 for a team that otherwise was 67-52. By then the Red Sox had replaced him as their closer by acquiring Ugueth Urbina in a trade with the Montreal Expos. Joe Kerrigan, then Boston's manager, gave Lowe three starts in September. "I think he's more relaxed as a starter," said Kerrigan. "There's no margin for error as a closer." In those outings Lowe went 1-0 with a 1.13 ERA.
After the season Kerrigan (who would be replaced by Grady Little on March 11) told Lowe to prepare to be a starter in 2002. On Oct. 15 Lowe, who has never thrown more than 170 innings in any pro season, began a weight training and eating regimen (four to five meals a day). He gained 25 pounds over the winter, bringing him to 230. "After the 2000 season I went on [an all-star] tour of Japan and got back November 18," Lowe says. "I never truly worked out that winter. I had a lousy spring training and got off to a bad start. Did I work as hard as I could? No. That was something I could do something about. I was in the gym in October doing squats. I had never done squats in my life. My goal was to show up in spring training ready to start the season-throwing all my pitches and being sharp from the first day."
Short relievers are the demolition experts of a pitching staff. They rely on raw force and quick detonations. By contrast, starting pitchers must face the same hitters several times over; thus they operate with the measured hand of an archeologist. To prepare for the switch to full-time starter, Lowe refined his curveball and changeup, added a cut fastball and, most important, made his signature sinker—which is essentially a two-seam fastball that drops—more versatile. As a reliever, Lowe threw the sinker to the same spot every time: away to lefthanders and in to righthanders. Now he can throw it at a left-handed batter's hip and have it run back over the inside corner.
"This year I'm using both sides of the plate," he says. "I'm also coming inside to lefthanders and sinking it away to righthanders. I was never able to do that before. I've had times this year when righthanders have taken three [strikes] away while looking for the ball in. My delivery is different.... When people ask me what's the difference between this year and last year, they're looking for one thing—but there's a lot of things."
Says Martinez, the only one of 27 Boston starters over the previous three years to win at least 14 games or pitch at least 200 innings, "His ball breaks down a foot, a foot and a half. It's amazing to watch."
The sinker, which Lowe began throwing in high school as his natural fastball, was his ticket to the big leagues, even if he didn't know it in 1991, when as a 170-pound senior at Edsel Ford High in Dearborn, Mich., he was All-Suburban Eight League in baseball, basketball, soccer and golf. After averaging more than 30 points and making all-state as a guard, Lowe planned to play basketball at Eastern Michigan, until the Mariners drafted him in the eighth round. "Never saw it coming," he says about interest from baseball scouts. "And if you saw me pitch then, you wouldn't have, either. I pitched O.K., but it wasn't like I was great."
Six years later, in one of the most lopsided trading-deadline deals in history, Seattle sent Lowe and Varitek to Boston for journeyman reliever Heathcliff Slocumb. Boston turned Lowe into a reliever. In 2000 he rode his sinker to the All-Star Game and 42 saves.
"People think I've got some strange grip or throw it a certain way," Lowe says. "I just hold it on two seams and throw it as hard as I can." By keeping his hand inside the ball—that is, slightly on the left side of it—Lowe imparts not only a downward action but also one that makes the ball run, or dart away from a lefthanded hitter.