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Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”
ARLINGTON, Texas — This was for the Tampa Bay Rays. For the Silverback Tribe. Mostly, for himself. By now, Brandon Lowe understands how baseball works, how the game will gnaw at your psyche, taunt your process, asphyxiate your effort. It will remind you how hard it really is — and then troll you for giggles. Nothing in the world can humble a man quite like trying to meet cylindrical bat with round ball.
All those moments of doubt and exasperation exist to make days like Wednesday exponentially more satisfying. Before Game 2 of the World Series, Lowe was the disappointment of the postseason. By its conclusion, Lowe might have saved the Rays’ hopes at a championship.
About 700 miles from here, just outside of Nashville, a man was screaming so loud, he said, “I literally woke up the neighbors’ dogs.” For more than a half-decade, Hunter Bledsoe has spent countless hours helping turn Lowe’s swing into a marvel of efficiency and power. And finally, after the struggles, the self-doubt, the weeks of frustration, here was Brandon Lowe being Brandon Lowe again, smashing two opposite-field home runs in a World Series game, piloting the Rays to a 6-4 victory against the Los Angeles Dodgers that evened the series.
For the past three weeks, as the Rays bullied their way to the American League pennant, they had done so with their best hitter virtually nonexistent. Coming into Game 2, Lowe had gone 6-for-56 this postseason. In none of the Rays’ 15 games had he registered more than one hit. He struck out 19 times. He swung at pitches out of the strike zone. He made weak contact. It was as if he’d had a Freaky Friday with the mailman and never switched back.
In truth, Lowe’s swing simply fell out of whack, and he needed time to understand that and fix it. Which in the middle of a World Series run against a juggernaut of a team like the Dodgers is no small feat, but then the entire story of Lowe’s career is about the emergence of unexpected excellence.
Thousands of players have taken at-bats in the World Series, and none has done what Lowe — rhymes with wow — did in Game 2: hit two opposite-field home runs. And lest you wonder what sort of leviathan Lowe is, what beastly kind of über-man possesses the strength to go oppo twice in a game, get ready for this: He stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 185 pounds. Rays manager Kevin Cash once said of Lowe: “He looks like Elf on a Shelf, but, man, can he hit a ball a long way and really hard.”
Wednesday was baseball Christmas for Lowe and the home runs his gifts. The first came in the first inning, when he was the second batter at the plate — still high in the Rays’ lineup, Cash said after Game 2, because “he’s shown over time that he’s a really good hitter, really good player and sometimes … you got to let them go through some tough patches.” Three innings later, he illustrated that the first-inning shot off rookie right-hander Tony Gonsolin was no fluke. He tagged Dodgers rookie Dustin May for a two-run shot that extended the Rays’ lead to 5-0.
To think, of course, that either materialized as if dropped through a chimney could not be further from the truth. Last week, toward the end of the ALCS, as Lowe’s slump reached its nadir, he sent a video of his swing to Bledsoe and two others confidants, asking, simply, “What do you guys see?” Each responded with almost the same answer: Lowe’s posture, which is so vital to him generating such enormous power from such a small frame, had too much slack.
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When he is at his best, Lowe uses the swing he honed with Bledsoe, who, with his brother Dustin, owns and operates the Bledsoe Agency. Their office building includes a sports-performance center where Bledsoe, a former SEC Player of the Year at Vanderbilt, leads offseason workouts that endeavor to build clients into better versions of themselves. When players at the facility hit a ball with 100 mph-plus exit velocity for the first time, they’re invited into an elite group Bledsoe calls the Silverback Tribe.
As he excelled at Maryland, got drafted by the Rays and ascended in the organization, Lowe understood how his natural gifts — his hips rotate with elite levels of force — made up for his natural size. Lowe’s best swing begins with him getting grounded. “Get the booty back,” they’ll say at the performance center. When the posterior positioning happen at the same time as Lowe’s front foot moving, his swing breaks.
That was the problem for most of the past three weeks. Not that one game necessarily sends Lowe into the diamond lane toward excellence, but, as Bledsoe noted: “Everybody who knows Brandon knows he can be really hot and carry a team. When that starts to happen, he’s as good as anybody in the game.”
However much that might sound like an exaggeration, it’s not. Around the halfway mark in the shortened season, nobody in the American League had accumulated more wins above replacement than Lowe. He was grounding himself with aplomb — butt back, no slack, energy building through the middle-third of his body. All that time spent with Bledsoe — from when he came in after his first minor league season and said “I’ve got to get better” to last winter, when three days after that All-Star season he started cage work to prepare for 2020.
“The reason Brandon has a cool moment like this is because of the fact that he’s unwilling not to,” Bledsoe said. “People can pout. They can blame. He just works, man. And at the end of the day, regardless of what happens, it’s a hard game. And you can trust in that. It might not be on the time schedule we want, but eventually it will pay off.
Game 1: Dodgers 8, Rays 3
Game 2: Rays 6, Dodgers 4
Game 3: Fri., Oct. 23, 8:08 ET
Game 4: Sat, Oct. 24, 8:08 ET
Game 5: Sun., Oct. 25, 8:08 ET
Game 6: Tue., Oct. 27, 8:08 ET*
Game 7: Wed., Oct. 28, 8:09 ET*
All games on Fox and ESPN Radio
“Brandon’s a very calm personality. He’s extremely competitive. His care factor and care level are extremely high. He’s hard on himself because he wants to be successful. One of the things we talk about the most is having a plan so you’re never truly lost, never that far away. Baseball is really hard. It makes everybody want to quit at some point. When you get into that valley, if you have a plan, you know you’re never too far from climbing out of it.”
Here is Lowe’s plan: hit the snot out of the ball. That’s high up on the easy-to-say, tough-to-do list, but Lowe trusted the responses in the text, trusted the wisdom of the Silverback Tribe, trusted that Cash kept slotting him not just in the lineup but high in it for good reason.
“To say my mind wasn’t going different places during that kind of struggle would be lying to you,” Lowe said. “There were times when I wasn’t feeling too good, but that’s what so great about this team. As soon as I started dragging my feet, somebody was right there to pick me up.”
He returned the favor in Game 2 as he knew he eventually would, and he knew that because Lowe has done this before. When he arrived in the major leagues, he went 0 for his first 19. Transitioning to the big leagues is difficult enough. Convincing yourself that you belong amid the gnawing, the taunting, the asphyxiation — that’s entirely different.
Different, it would seem, suits Lowe. His path to the World Series was circuitous enough, his understanding of himself deep enough, that he can stare at 6-for-56 and lean on his psyche, rely on his process, bank on his effort. As far gone as he was, turns out it wasn’t that far. When that cylindrical bat in his hands met the round ball, he was the one doing the humbling.