DENVER -- Riddle me this: Why is it unthinkable for a manager to try to save a game with a pitcher who hasn't worked in, say, nine days and barely at all in a month, yet it's OK to ask a hitter who has been rotting on the bench to try to win a game when you're down to your last out?
That's the terrible Catch-22 Mike Lowell and the Red Sox find themselves in right now. Lowell rarely plays anymore -- he hadn't appeared in a game since June 13 and had just 16 at-bats in the last month. But he was called upon to pinch-hit in the ninth inning Tuesday night, the Sox trailing by a run, the tying run on base, and manager Terry Francona basically out of options.
Lowell actually had a good at-bat. Rockies reliever Matt Belisle threw him six straight fastballs, missing with the first three. Lowell took a strike, fouled off a pitch, then hit a smash into the shortstop hole. Clint Barmes, who was shaded that way, made a diving stop, scrambled to his feet and had plenty of time to throw out Lowell, laboring down the baseline.
The Red Sox, who had won six in a row, were 2-1 losers to the Colorado Rockies in their first game back in Coors Field, the place where they won the 2007 World Series and Lowell was named MVP.
Those days seem like a lifetime ago now for Lowell, who is spending what is likely the last season of his big league career in a purgatory of idleness, frustration and failure. He has four hits in 45 at-bats since May 4, an .089 average. He has three RBIs in that span, two coming in the same game, a 12-2 laughter on June 11 in Philadelphia in which he hit his only home run in that time.
The harsh reality, underscored by Lowell's Sisyphus-like journey to first base, is that he is no longer of use to the Sox, and by putting him in a position where he is only going to fail, the Sox are sorely mistreating a player who in better days played through all manner of pain because he didn't want to come off the field.
Many of you will ridicule that characterization: How can it be called mistreatment to pay a player $12 million regardless of how little he gives back in return? As if an athlete's life can be defined only by dollars, and not the ferocious competitive drive it takes for anyone to put himself in position to make that kind of money.
But maybe the cynics will be more receptive to this: It is time for the Sox to cut ties with Lowell, not out of the goodness of their hearts but because he is hurting the team. He is no longer an insurance policy in case David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis or Adrian Beltre stumble. He has demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that at this stage of his career, he cannot make the transition from everyday player to scarcely used soul.
And physically, the limitations are the kind that you cannot tolerate from a bench player. You can put up with Lowell's inability to run when he's hitting 20 to 25 home runs and knocking in 80 to 100 runs. You can't with a part-timer. Another player would have had a chance to beat out Lowell's smash into the hole.
Lowell himself said he was not surprised that he was thrown out. "Not at all,'' he said. "I'm slow. When [Barmes] gets up, he has all the time in the world.''
A week ago, the Red Sox signed a 30-year-old first baseman named Ryan Shealy to a minor league contract, the day after he exercised a June 15 opt-out with the Tampa Bay Rays. Shealy has big league experience, spending parts of four seasons (2005-08) with the Rockies and Royals. He is a 6-foot-5, 240-pound right-handed hitter who fell short of winning an everyday job but put up respectable numbers in his big league stints (.271/.335/.429).
In the minors, he has hit home runs everywhere he has played, and he fields his position OK. In his first five games with Pawtucket, Shealy is batting .471 (8-for-17) with a home run and four RBIs.
Before Tuesday's game, I asked Lowell if he thought the Sox were positioning themselves with Shealy to make a move involving him.
"No idea,'' he said. "I refuse to try to think about what's going on. Day by day, that's what I do.''
Lowell was a salary dump in the winter of 2005 -- when the Florida Marlins sent him to the Red Sox with Josh Beckett -- and became an indispensable part of a championship team. The time has come for Lowell to be part of another salary dump, if the Sox have any intention of becoming champions again.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.