The 31-year-old is aware that a spot in the bullpen seems out of reach. With a slew of right-handers that are younger and now throw harder than him, Lowe is a long shot at best and probably is destined for Class AAA Tacoma. It doesn’t matter.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Are we really going on 10 years? Can it be that long since Mark Lowe burst onto the scene in Seattle, pumping fastballs with triple-digit velocity and leaving hitters flailing at vapor trails?
He doesn’t really look much different from the guy who made his major-league debut during the 2006 season.
But there are a few changes.
Gone is the mop of hair that used to dance out of the back of his cap when he stood on the mound. It has been replaced by a close-cropped look that reveals a gray hair or two.
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Lowe, 31, still possesses a baby face that looks as if it would take 10 years to grow 1/1000th of teammate Dustin Ackley’s facial hair. There might be an age line or two — the cost of fatherhood.
Lowe recently scanned the Mariners clubhouse and saw the young faces of Carson Smith, Dominic Leone, Danny Hultzen, Tyler Olson, David Rollins and Taijuan Walker.
He’s logged more seasons, innings, strikeouts and surgeries than all of them combined.
“You look back, and it’s just kind of flown by and the years all kind of mix together,” he said. “There have been a lot of different things going on over the course of those years. I’ve been to a lot of different places. I’ve seen a lot of different things. I’ve pitched in a World Series. ”
And that’s the difference now. He’s no longer the hot prospect, the 100-mph throwing phenom or the future closer. He’s just another pitcher on a minor-league contract trying to make a Mariners team with a stacked bullpen.
Even after he was traded from the Mariners to the Rangers in 2010 as part of the Cliff Lee deal, Lowe remained close with trainers Rick Griffin and Rob Nodine, clubhouse manager Ryan Stiles and other people in the Mariners front office. It’s why he chose to sign with Seattle in the offseason
“I’ve known them since I was a 21-year-old kid,” he said. “To be able to come in and be comfortable with people you already know … it goes a long way. This is the team that took a chance on me. There’s a special place in my heart for them, and I wanted to go back.”
Lowe is aware that a spot in the bullpen seems out of reach. With a slew of right-handers that are younger and now throw harder than him, Lowe is a longshot at best and probably is destined for Class AAA Tacoma.
It doesn’t matter.
“I knew that coming in,” he said. “I was in Tampa last year. When I signed, there were three or four spots wide open. It looked like the perfect opportunity. Then they ended up going out and getting three or four guys to fill spots. I had the best spring I’ve ever had, and I was still released. You can try to maneuver your way into what you think is a perfect situation, but how do you know it will stay a perfect situation?”
Lowe’s current situation is far from perfect but is preferred. There still are a few previous teammates around — Felix Hernandez, Willie Bloomquist, Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez.
And there’s plenty of competition. With manager Lloyd McClendon pushing to keep two lefties for the bullpen, Lowe is sitting behind Fernando Rodney, Danny Farquhar, Tom Wilhelmsen, Yoervis Medina, Leone, Smith and maybe a few others on the depth chart.
“I’ve actually been really impressed with the talent and just watching guys throw (bullpen sessions),” he said. “They are so far ahead of where I was at that time as far as having an idea of what they’re doing working the ball around the plate and locating all their pitches; these guys really get it.”
It seems like hyperbole. Lowe was special in 2006, going from Class A Inland Empire, to Class AA San Antonio to the Mariners in the span of three months.
His debut July 7 against the Tigers was memorable. He gave up a single, a double and hit a batter to load the bases. Lowe then struck out Placido Polanco, got Ivan Rodriguez to ground back to the mound for a force-out at home and then struck out Magglio Ordonez to put up a scoreless inning.
In his next 12 appearances, Lowe would pitch a 162/3 innings without allowing a run. During that stretch he struck out 20 batters, giving up seven hits and eight walks. The 172/3 consecutive shutout innings to start a big-league career is a club record.
But it wasn’t just the results, it was how he did it, using a fastball that sat at 97-98 mph and touched 100 on occasion to go with good offspeed pitches.
“He was throwing 100 with that nasty changeup and slider,” Hernandez said. “He was just nasty.”
But late in that year, Lowe’s elbow gave out. He was placed on the disabled list and had invasive surgery to repair a chondral defect, for which surgeon Dr. Lewis Yocum drilled holes in his elbow to correct.
Another surgery in spring training of 2007 to clean out scar tissue limited him to four big-league appearances that season.
Lowe came back, but the high-90s velocity did not return. Lowe still threw hard. But the electric fastball was down to 93 to 94 mph.
“I always said when I stopped throwing hard, my career would be over,” he said. “That’s how I felt when I was a kid.”
But it wasn’t over. It couldn’t be over. He struggled through 2008, posting a 5.37 earned-run average and never quite feeling like himself. But a month off after that season helped, and in 2009 he posted a 3.26 ERA in 75 appearances.
“I’ve never had any problem with my elbow since,” he said.
But it wasn’t just health. It was adjusting to what he was as a player. He couldn’t be a flamethrower; he had to be a pitcher.
“When you are throwing 98 or 99 you don’t have to be as perfect,” he said. “ … You can get away with things. Now I’ve had to find a way to mix up all my pitches and make it a guessing game, not just selection but my location.”
Lowe has battled back issues (which required surgery), pitched for four organizations with stops in the minor leagues the past four seasons before returning to the Mariners. And if it doesn’t work out with Seattle, there’s always another team. He isn’t done.
“I don’t know anything else,” he said. “ … I still feel like I have a lot left in the tank. This is the best I’ve ever felt.
“My goal is (to play until) 40. If I don’t, it’s been a wonderful career. After my elbow surgery, I was given a 20 percent chance of pitching again. I feel like the beat the odds. I have no complaints.”