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This year he is the American League ERA leader, a 6'6" righthanded starter seemingly blessed from the cradle with a wicked limbo dancer of a sinker that on the best of days is certifiably unhittable. Last year he was afraid to leave his own clubhouse. If the path to stardom for Derek Lowe didn't exactly pass through hell, it did have to traverse Yawkey Way, the street outside of Fenway Park that is typically lined with the most willful of Boston Red Sox fans waiting for the players to exit their parking lot.
Lowe, then a reliever, could not bring himself to face the gantlet last Aug. 31, not after having served up his third game-tying or game-winning home run of the season to the dreaded New York Yankees. He had grown weary of fans' spitting and pounding on his car and rocking it. He didn't want to find out what might happen this night, not after he had blown a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning when Yankees catcher Jorge Posada had taken him yard with a runner on. So Lowe turned the clubhouse into his personal fallout shelter.
He hunkered down there until he figured that even the most clinically helpless of the fans had gone home. Maybe those were some of the same people who accounted for the stacks of mail wishing him traded or dead. Maybe they were among the fans who shouted profanely for him to sit down every time he stood to warm up in the bullpen. Maybe some of them had been at Fenway on Derek Lowe Poster Night, and had been among those who angrily heaved scores of the giveaways onto the field in protest of another Lowe-light, this time a blown save against the Seattle Mariners.
By the time Lowe decided it was safe to head home, it was nearly 1 a.m. Yawkey Way was indeed abandoned. "That was the lowest point," Lowe says of hiding in the locker room. "I waited two hours, at least, just sitting there in the clubhouse. It got so bad last year that I remember days when I'd pull out the schedule and pray to God we were coming up to the last day of a home stand. Or if we were on the road, I'd always want to get [called in to pitch during] the last game of a trip before we went back to Fenway, hoping I'd have a good game so they wouldn't get on me so bad. The last day of a trip was always very important for me."
Ten months later Red Sox fans are picking up his tab at restaurants. Besides possessing that AL-best 2.18 ERA, Lowe (11-4) was at week's end the league's co-leader in wins, the proud owner of a no-hitter (April 27 against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays), one of the most reliable starters in baseball and, strangest of all, a fan favorite. He also might well be the best running mate ace Pedro Martinez has known in his five seasons in the Boston rotation. Not since Rosie Ruiz beat all the other women to the finish line in the 1980 Boston Marathon by allegedly skipping most of the course has the Hub seen a more unlikely winner than Lowe, whom The Boston Globe described this spring as "once among the most reviled figures in the sports-crazy metropolis."
Lowe, 29, is more than halfway home to joining Wilbur Wood ( Chicago White Sox, 1970 and '71) as the only pitchers in history to save 20 games and win 20 games in back-to-back seasons. ( Lowe had 24 saves in 2001.) He has gotten this far with an apparent ease exceeded only by that of his egress from a suddenly friendly Fenway. Through Sunday, Lowe had allowed two runs or fewer in 12 of his 16 starts, held batters to a .193 average and permitted only four home runs.
"There's no doubt in my mind it's the most dominating run of pitching I've ever seen," says Red Sox righthander John Burkett, a veteran of 14 major league seasons. "I pitched with Billy Swift in '93, Kevin Brown and Al Leiter in '96 and [Greg] Maddux and [Tom] Glavine last year, but I've never seen anything close to this."
Says centerfielder Johnny Damon, "With the great pitchers you feel like every time they go out there, you have a great chance to win. With Derek it's been more than that. Every time he goes out there, he has a chance to throw a no-hitter."
Indeed, Lowe was unhittable on that April Saturday against the Devil Rays. He since has given each of more than 30 Boston players and staff members a $1,500 watch inscribed with the date, opponent and DEREK LOWE NO-HITTER on the back. Even before such generosity, Lowe was popular in the clubhouse for his gregarious, playful nature.