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10/06/07 5:42 PM ET

Lowell's popularity off the charts

Despite free-agent status, third baseman eyes another ring

BOSTON -- It was Sept. 30, and Mike Lowell was exiting, stage right, from perhaps the last regular-season game of his two-year Red Sox career. Headed for free agency and unable to work out an extension during the season, Lowell sensed extra meaning in the raucous fifth-inning ovation from the 36,364 Fenway faithful in attendance. Did he want to return the love?

"Sure," said Lowell. "I think I did that. But I'm separating the two, because I don't think my potential contract situation has anything to do with what we want to accomplish the next four weeks. ... We'll worry about [the contract] in a month or so, you know? Hopefully things work out. I'm not worried about that at all."

Three days later, Lowell and the Red Sox embarked on their quest for a World Series championship, meeting the Angels in Game 1 of the American League Division Series. By then, the ovation was only a memory. Plenty of work remained -- and Lowell wasn't about to prevent his team from taking care of it.

"He's a true professional," rookie phenom Jacoby Ellsbury said. "That's what I'd call him: a true professional."

With a rousing 6-3 victory in Game 2 of the ALDS on Friday evening, the Red Sox hold a commanding 2-0 lead over the Angels. Through the two games at Fenway, Lowell is batting 1-for-5 with two RBIs.

Lowell's return to greatness, from being a throw-in in the Red Sox's 2005 deal for Josh Beckett to becoming the potential best free-agent third baseman on the market this offseason, has been swift and compelling. With two years of solid production at the hot corner and a career-best 2007 season out of the No. 5 hole, fans at Rally Monday turned the Miami native into a beloved Boston hero.

"He fits in great," said closer Jonathan Papelbon. "He's a guy that gives the city a boost, and it's not David [Ortiz] or Manny [Ramirez]. I think the city recognizes that and loves that and wants him to stay here."

Lowell's popularity in Boston starts in the Red Sox's clubhouse. Fellow veterans commend his work ethic, which has helped him play an average of 154 games over the last four seasons at one of baseball's most physically taxing positions. Rookies admire his generosity and appreciate his counsel.

"He's been unbelievable, and he's helped everybody -- not just me," said second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "He's a professional under any circumstances, and he's helped me out a ton."

Lowell's congeniality crosses cultural barriers. Born in Puerto Rico to a father of Cuban descent and raised in Miami, Lowell converses fluently with the team's Latin players. He talks just as easily with the media, who appreciate his candor and intelligence.

"He's one of the best guys you'll ever be around," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "His teammates love him. We love him. The fans love him. There's no reason not to."

But Lowell has become venerated in Boston not just because, as Papelbon said, "everybody can relate to Mike Lowell." Lowell is loved because there has been nobody better -- not at Fenway's hot corner, in years.

With a two-run homer on Sept. 29, Lowell drove in his 120th -- and final -- run of the season. No other Red Sox third baseman has racked up as many RBIs. Only Butch Hobson's 112 RBIs in 1977 come close.

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"He's been special all year," Pedroia said. "It's good to hit in front of him, because any time I get on base, I'm going to score."

Lowell did it with patience -- he finished the season with a career-high .378 on-base percentage -- and a dead eye for pitches he could drive. Lowell batted .324, tied with the Angels' Vladimir Guerrero for seventh in the league, and finished with 21 homers. Lowell batted .356 with runners in scoring position. His .879 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) was second to A-Rod among AL third basemen.

At the hot corner, much was made of Lowell's early-season troubles with errors. But he improved there, too, committing just three errors in 96 games after June 13, and displaying the same range and throwing arm that won him a Gold Glove in 2005.

"I think he's one of the best out there," said shortstop Julio Lugo. "He's one of the best in baseball. He just makes everything look easy, has a good arm and his instincts are great."

On Sept. 30, after Francona pulled Lowell in the fifth inning so that fans could shower him with applause -- "It was a nice gesture," Lowell said -- Lowell weighed in on the team's run to the postseason. It was just the kind of answer Bostonians have come to expect: honest, assured and weighted with real expectations.

"It's very exciting, but I think we expected to do this," Lowell said. "You know, I think we would've all felt like we underachieved, and I think we would've all been disappointed if this was the last day of the season. So the fact that we did what we thought we should do is very satisfying."

There is little disagreement from Boston fans, likewise, on what the Red Sox should do with Lowell at season's end.

Alex McPhillips is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.