By Wendy Thurm
OAKLAND, CA. -- Imagine you're a contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. You've banked $250,000. The next question is about baseball, so you start to get excited about $500,000. But you're out of lifelines. You either know the answer and are halfway to a million dollars, or you don't know or aren't sure, and you have to either risk it or go home with nothing.
You're given a list of four players, three of whom have been selected as All-Stars over the last two seasons. The question is announced: "This player is one of just three major league shortstops who has driven in at least 75 runs, and he is also the only shortstop with at least 40 doubles."
A) Ian Desmond
B) J.J. Hardy
C) Jed Lowrie
D) Troy Tulowitzki
The lights are bright. Your palms are sweaty. Are you confident enough to wager $250,000 to get to half a million? Or are you taking your $250,000 and going home?
The answer is: C) Jed Lowrie.
Lowrie was traded by the Houston Astros to the Oakland Athletics in February, just prior to the start of spring training. The A's were looking for infield depth at multiple positions, while the Astros were looking to sell off anything that wasn't nailed down in order to add prospects. The A's needed the depth even after they signed Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima last December for $6.5 million, because Nakajima struggled on both sides of the ball in spring training, suffered a hamstring injury, and never ended up playing a game for Oakland. Lowrie was the A's Opening Day shortstop, and save for some brief interludes at second base, he's been the Oakland shortstop nearly every day this season.
It's been a good season for Oakland, as the A's have won 95 games with two to play. They've scored the third-most runs in the American League, and they've secured back-to-back American League West division titles. To the outside world, the main individual story here is the breakout of third baseman Josh Donaldson, who has been spectacular and has finally garnered the attention he deserves in the race for the American League MVP. But through it all, Jed Lowrie has been the glue that has held the A's lineup together.
"You look at the numbers, and Lowrie's had a great year for us," A's manager Bob Melvin said recently. In addition to the doubles and RBI, Lowrie has hit 15 home runs, and posted a healthy .289/.344/.445 line in more than 650 plate appearances. Among American League shortstops, only Jhonny Peralta has been more productive at the plate; that is, until MLB suspended Peralta for 50 games for violating the league's Joint Drug Policy.
Lowrie's versatility has been huge for Bob Melvin, who has had to juggle his lineups all season as regulars Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, and Yoenis Cespedes battled injuries. "I can plug Lowrie into a certain spot in the lineup depending on who has a day off or is injured," said Melvin. "He's been terrific in the leadoff spot. I think he's hit everywhere one through six or seven."
Actually, Lowrie's had at least one plate appearance in every spot in the order. Mostly, he's hit second and third. Lowrie prefers to hit second. "I think I'm a number two hitter," he told me on a recent Sunday morning. "If you look at what I'm capable of, I control the bat, hit the ball in the gaps. That's where I feel most comfortable."
But Lowrie knows how to make the necessary adjustments when Melvin needs to bat him elsewhere in the lineup. "Each position is a little different. Leadoff, especially the first at-bat, you want to see a few more pitches. See what the pitcher's got. Hitting third or fourth, you look to drive in runs." Melvin appreciates Lowrie's ability to adjust on the fly. "Most guys when you put them in different spots than they are used to, you tell them: 'Hey look, don't worry about where you're hitting. Just go about your business,'" said Melvin. "Lowrie understands what he needs to do in each spot in the lineup. He's been a great resource for me."
Before Oakland, the 29-year-old Lowrie spent four injury-riddled seasons with the Red Sox, followed by one injury-riddled season with the Astros. He had wrist surgery in 2009, an extended case of mononucleosis in 2010, a separated shoulder in 2011, and a sprained ankle with nerve damage in 2012. He's understandably a bit curt when asked how his body is holding up this season, his first with more than 100 games played. He's quick to emphasize that his wrist, shoulder and ankle were injured in collisions on the field, and not because he wasn't in good shape during the season. "I feel good now. You want the opportunity to stay healthy all year, and I have," Lowrie said.
The A's bet that if Lowrie stayed healthy, he'd produce like he did in Houston -- when he hit .244/.331/.438 in 97 games -- but over a full season. He's done much more than that. When asked whether he changed his approach after arriving in Oakland, Lowrie demurred: "I don't think I'm doing anything differently. I just have a full season of stats."
Thanks to those stats, the Oakland A's are back in the postseason once again.