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‘I’m going to be good’: Tigers need a reliable Lowe

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Mark Lowe

Kansas City, Mo. – One of the first things on manager Brad Ausmus’ to-do list when he got to the ballpark in Chicago Wednesday was to seek out reliever Mark Lowe.

“I didn’t want him to come back thinking he had a bad outing just because he gave up a home run,” Ausmus said. “Despite that home run, the things he’s been working on, we saw the fruits of that labor.”

Ausmus has been steadfast on this point: For the Tigers to remain in contention and get back to the playoffs, Lowe needs to be a viable and reliable late-inning right-handed bullpen option.

“The truth is, if we can get Mark Lowe going in the direction he was going last year, or anywhere close to that, then our bullpen becomes formidable, quite frankly,” he said. “If we have Lowe, Shane Greene, Justin Wilson and K-Rod (Francisco Rodriguez), that’s four guys for the last three innings – you’d feel pretty good about that.”

The loss to the White Sox Wednesday showed what the Tigers are missing without Lowe. It was a 3-3 game in the seventh inning. Greene, Rodriguez and Alex Wilson were unavailable because they had been used so much earlier in the week.

With Lowe still trying to find his form, Ausmus left starter Mike Pelfrey in to face one more right-handed hitter to lead off the seventh. He went to Blaine Hardy to face left-handed hitting Adam Eaton because late-inning lefty Justin Wilson was going to be used in the closer’s role.

And when Ausmus had to match up against right-handed hitter Todd Frazier, his choices were Anibal Sanchez and Buck Farmer.

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Lowe isn’t a high-leverage option these days. He’s been struggling since May to regain the form that made him one of the stingiest set-up men in the American League last season (1.96 ERA, 61 strikeouts in 55 innings).

Recently there have been signs that something has started to click. His velocity is back up. He was throwing 94 mph against the White Sox Tuesday. His slider is sharper, though it still betrays him occasionally. Tyler Saladino hit a hanging slider into the left field seats, the only mistake Lowe made Tuesday night.

“The slider overall was good, though,” Ausmus said. “He was getting swings and misses. He just got on the side of the one to Saladino. He’s been working with mechanical changes over the past eight to 10 days and every once in a while he comes out of them.

“When he stays in them, he throws well.”

Mark Lowe finishes the Tigers' win over the White Sox on Tuesday night.

The most encouraging at-bat of the outing for Lowe was the game-ending strikeout of Eaton. He got him to swing and miss on two consecutive change-ups, which is a new weapon for him.

“I’ve been working on it with Frankie (Rodriguez) and playing around with it all year,” Lowe said. “I think I’ve found something that works. I threw three of them and all three were strikes – two swings and misses and one taken.”

It’s remarkable that a veteran pitcher like Lowe, who broke into the big leagues in 2006, can seemingly forget how to pitch. That had to be how it felt, as he was suddenly getting battered outing after outing through the month of May.

He gave up 12 runs and 13 hits, including five home runs in a span of 7.2 innings. Opponents hit him at a .394 clip with a 1.417 OPS.

He’s since gone through a series of mechanical adjustments, like a golfer learning a completely new swing.

“Once you create some bad habits, it takes a while to recreate the muscle memory to do something the right way,” Lowe said. “Subconsciously you have to think about what you are doing on every pitch. Last year I didn’t have to think about anything mechanical. I just saw the glove, threw to it and it went there nine out of 10 times.

“This has been a grind but it’s moving in the right direction. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

A lot of the changes suggested to him didn’t click. Finally, one did. Video study revealed that he was dropping his back shoulder and throwing uphill. Clayton Kershaw has a similar delivery, where he falls back on his back leg to get extra leg drive. Not many pitchers can be successful throwing that way.

“It’s not that strange,” Ausmus said. “A lot of pitchers do that once in a while. But last year when he was pitching well, Lowe’s shoulders were level. He had started to get too steep.”

Lowe said his mental key is to remind himself to stay tall.

“If I stay tall on my back leg as long as I can, I can’t bend down,” he said. “The collapsing of the back side was forcing me to come up – and you have to come back over (and finish the pitch). But if I stay kind of tall, then my shoulders stay level.

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“This has been the one thing that’s made sense to me – keeping my shoulders in line. Back to the beginning of May, when everything started to unravel, it’s kind of been one thing here and work on this; one thing there, so work on that.

“But I think the pieces are finally starting to come together.”

The Tigers are committed to see Lowe through this. They made a two-year, $11 million commitment to him in the offseason and they continue to see flashes of the quality stuff that’s made him a dependable, late-inning reliever throughout his career when healthy.

That’s why Ausmus made a point of seeking him out Wednesday.

“I think we are all on the same page here,” Lowe said. “We all want the same thing. They’ve been working with me, been staying with me and helping me through the process. Everyone in here is behind me and that goes a long way when you are going through a rough stretch.

“I’m going to get out of it and I’m going to be good.”

 Twitter @cmccosky