As should be expected in any thrilling playoff matchup, the final two games of the National League Championship Series provided their share of baseball villains and heroes.

Tuesday night it was Steve Bartman, the fan whose greedy hands gave Florida new life at the plate, and sure-handed shortstop Alex Gonzalez who took his eye off the ball a split-second too early that had diehard Cubbies fans rubbing their temples in disbelief as Pudge Rodriquez, Derek Lee and Mike Mordecai fueled the Fins’ eighth-inning charge.

Wednesday night produced even more Marlins being measured for superhero capes, as Game 5 winner Josh Beckett came on in long relief and halted any chance of a Cubs comeback on just two days rest.

Bouncing back after trailing three games to one, the Marlins reeled off three straight, including the last two in hostile waters, and sailed into the World Series.

But lost in all the hype of inexorable curses, late-inning comebacks and Game 7 drama is the existence of at least one true comeback hero quietly patrolling the field during the playoffs.

Mike Lowell is hitting just .174 in 10 games this postseason. But the Marlins’ third baseman has overcome too much for his contributions to be measured merely by insignificant numbers and percentages.

In 1999, Lowell was a promising prospect craving a shot from a big league ball club. Traded by the New York Yankees to Florida, Lowell was poised to become the team’s starter at the hot corner and provide some pop in the middle of an unspectacular lineup.

Things were looking as bright as the Miami sun for Lowell. But, little did he know, dark days were soon to follow.

During a routine physical in February doctors discovered a mass and diagnosed Lowell with testicular cancer. Just 24 years old, Lowell was no longer so concerned with charging bunts or handling 0-2 sliders. The term “day-to-day” suddenly took on new meaning.

Following surgery and weeks of radiation treatment, a depleted Lowell began his return to the baseball diamond with AAA Calgary. After tendonitis in his throwing arm delayed the recovery process by several months, Lowell was recalled by Florida to replace injured third baseman Kevin Orie on the roster May 28. It marked the first time he put on a major league uniform in eight months.

Like countless other cancer survivors, Lowell considers his disease to be a blessing in disguise. It forced him prioritize his values while opening his eyes to the bigger picture, known as “life after baseball.”

After a career-year in 2002, this season brought a slew of new challenges. In July, Lowell began experiencing soreness in his groin and everyone feared the worst. But a series of MRIs and some bloodwork revealed that he was afflicted only by a strained muscle and not a recurrence of the cancer.

Lowell was also slowed by a broken left hand that caused him to miss 25 games. And when his replacement, 20-year-old phenom Miguel Cabrera, shined in his absence, Lowell wasn’t fazed a bit.

When he returned from the disabled list just before the postseason, Lowell knew that he had lost his starting job at third. But griping or moping about tough breaks or unfortunate timing was not something the clubhouse leader ever considered. Instead Lowell focused on readying himself for life as a sub, most notably as a pinch-hitter likely to be penciled in during clutch situations.

So Lowell waited on the bench for his chance, just as he had done years before as a rookie. And when manager Jack McKeon called on the slugger to grab a bat and get loose in the 11th inning of Game 1 against the Cubs, Lowell knew just what to do.

“I was just prepared to have the at-bat,” Lowell said. “I’m not used to the pinch-hitting thing. My main focus was to stay loose. I was running up and down the stairs and stretching and making some dry swings in the clubhouse. I can’t say I knew it was going to be hit off [Mark] Guthrie. I was just ready for the at-bat.”

With the game knotted at three, Lowell deposited a leadoff homerun into the centerfield seats at Wrigley Field. Closer Braden Looper came on to close the door on the Cubs in the bottom of the inning as Florida stole the series opener on the road.

The Marlins continued to use Lowell in a pinch-hitting role for two more games until the situation became dire. By Game 4, Lowell was once again a fixture in the middle of Florida’s lineup.

His insertion meant that Cabrera would have to move to rightfield, a position he had never played before in his life. But desperate times call for desparate measures, and McKeon’s decision to keep both bats in the order proved to be a stroke of genius, as the Marlins clinched a come-from-behind series win Wednesday.

Without being fully aware of it at the time, Lowell’s teammates followed the inspirational lead of their very own comeback hero and rallied back again and again in the NLCS.

The guiding principle in any playoff series is to survive and advance by “playing like there’s no tomorrow.” Perhaps the only Marlin who can truly say he has confronted a life with no tomorrows, Mike Lowell has already survived, advanced and won the most important game in life.

Gerton can be reached at mgerton@campustimes.org.



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