On October 20, 2004, Derek Lowe had what might be the greatest pitching performance in Boston Red Sox history. It’s certainly the most underappreciated. Facing the New York Yankees in a classic Game 7, Lowe allowed one run and one hit in six innings. And he did it on just two days of rest.
The Red Sox won the game 10-3 and completed a stunning comeback from a three-games-to-none deficit against their hated rivals. They went on to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series and earned the franchise’s first title in 86 years.
Lowe talked about his historic outing when his current team, the Cleveland Indians, visited Fenway Park earlier this season.
David Laurila: Your performance in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS is arguably the greatest in Red Sox history. Do you agree with that?
Lowe: I don’t know. There have been a lot of games in the franchise’s history. Maybe the magnitude makes it that big. It was a perfect storm. I had competitive stuff that day and we scored a lot of runs. I had just pitched against them 48 hours earlier, so I had a fresh thought of what I wanted to do.
Our game plan was to throw a lot of breaking balls. We threw a lot of them and I was fortunate enough to have good command of my off-speed stuff that day. We figured they’d be ultra-aggressive, because it was kind of how the series had gone. They had been up 3-0 and we had clawed our way back to Game 7 in Yankee Stadium. We felt they’d be over-aggressive and maybe force the issue. Our game plan was something we were going to live and die by.
DL: How good was your stuff that day?
Lowe: Oh, God. I’ve had better. I’ve had worse. I don’t want to say it was just average, but the magnitude made every pitch important. I was able to have competitive enough pitches in big moments, and that allowed us to get to play St. Louis.
DL: What do you remember about the first inning?
Lowe: Striking out [Gary] Sheffield on a 3-2 breaking ball. We were trying to throw him curveballs inside. We were trying to start the ball directly at him, knowing full well that the ball was going to end up right down the middle of the plate. We were fine with that. We figured that he would take it, and he did.
DL: Derek Jeter flew out and Alex Rodriguez grounded out in that inning. Rodriguez had homered against you in Game 5.
Lowe: The home run he hit against me was on a flat sinker, away. I can’t exactly remember what we got him out on, to be honest. At that point, you’re as nervous as all giddy up. You’re trying to act all calm, cool and collected, but you’re just looking for outs. With Jeter — for me, getting a fly-ball out isn’t ideal, but it was an out. The last thing I wanted, especially in that stadium, was a lead-off base hit, so I was happy with it.
Getting that first out was all about momentum and confidence. [Jeter] is the leader of that team, and we were in their stadium, so it was crucial to have an easy inning. Getting the leadoff guy obviously helps make that possible.
DL: You had a 2-0 lead when you took the mound in the second inning.
Lowe: I knew the score, but by no means did I ever pitch to the score. There are some games throughout the season — the regular season — where you have a 7-0 lead, and you pitch to that 7-0 lead. What I mean by that is you may throw more fastballs. A run here and a run there isn’t going to kill you. This was a time where I never let the score change how I was going to approach the game.
DL: You gave up a run in the third inning and the Yankees were threatening for more.
Lowe: Yes, and our bullpen was up. Sheffield hit a bullet to third. It was a hanging breaking ball and Bill Mueller made a great play at third base. Even though we still had a big enough lead [6-0], you could sense that it was a time they wanted to strike. The Bill Mueller play was — you don’t want to say it was game-changing, because it was the third inning, but to me, personally, it could have been the end to my night. I remember looking down to the bullpen and if there were three mounds out there to throw off of, we’d have had a guy on all of them.
DL: You didn’t allow a base runner after that.
Lowe: I settled in and got a lot of ground balls. I felt good enough with my stuff that once they had that chance to strike, and didn’t — and I think we scored again the next inning, to increase our lead even more. From there on out, I don’t recall ever having any stressful pitches. I got ahead of a lot of guys the rest of the way and the crowd was at a standstill. There wasn’t a lot of noise, and that’s ultimately what you want to have on the road.
You’re usually going to get more comfortable during a game. This was no different. Again, we had a big lead and Jason [Varitek] had a tremendous game plan. I never shook him off the whole game. We had talked about what we wanted to do and I put my whole game in his hands.
DL: When you walked off the mound after the sixth inning, did you know that was it?
Lowe: Yes. We had talked about it before. [Terry Francona] asked, “How much do you have left?” I said, “This will pretty much be it.” I remember striking out Sheffield and just kind of letting out a deep breath. It was over. It was kind of what you dream about the night before. It was how you see the game going, and I was able to do it. To be honest, it was also a big relief.
DL: The Stadium got pretty loud when the Yankees scored twice against Pedro Martinez in the seventh inning. Sitting in the dugout, was there a sense of fear?
Lowe: Well, yeah. We had seen their offense. They had scored 19 runs back at Fenway. Any time a team like that gets any type of momentum, God knows where it could take you. Fortunately, we were able to get some big outs, and off we went.
DL: Is it the biggest game you ever pitched?
Lowe: No doubt, but I also look back at Game 4 as being pretty gratifying. I knew that it was going to be my last year [with the Red Sox]. I was the last guy to make the team when we put together the playoff roster; I was the 11th guy on the staff. We were down 3-0 and had just gotten blown out in Game 3. I had an opportunity to pitch, and I kept us in the game. But Game 7 was obviously bigger.
DL: Did pitching on two days of rest help your sinker?
Lowe: I don’t believe in that. I would much rather pitch at full strength. You still need your legs under you, and you still need your arm in the right arm slot. If you get too tired, your ball doesn’t move anymore. I promise you. They should do that on the show Myth Busters, because it’s not true.
DL: What else is notable about Game 7?
Lowe: My shoes didn’t make it. My game shoes didn’t make it to Game 7. I’m not blaming the people in New York, but they had a tendency to lose stuff at the wrong time. I got to the game and I had zero shoes. Zero.
They went to Sports Authority and all they had were Reeboks with no toe on them. I wear Nike. If you look at the tape, you’ll see that my shoes were completely black, because I wasn’t supposed to wear anything besides Nike. I pitched Game 7 wearing off-the-shelf Sports Authority shoes. And I won.