PORT CHARLOTTE — The way veteran reliever Mark Lowe views his career, he's playing with house money.
Lowe, 30, has pitched parts of eight seasons in the majors, including appearing in a World Series. Baseball has given him a living, plenty to support his wife, Stephanie, and 2-year-old daughter, Kennedy. It also has given Lowe, who has Type 1 diabetes, a platform to help with charitable causes close to him.
And none of that seemed possible when, after his rookie season with the Mariners in 2006, Lowe had microfracture surgery on his right elbow. Doctors told him he had a 20 percent chance of ever pitching again.
Yet, here Lowe is, on a minor-league deal with the Rays, hoping to grab the last spot in the bullpen and another shot at a championship.
"It's been a long road," Lowe said. "It's been up and down along the way. But I've gotten way more than I ever asked for. By no means do I think that I'm done. By no means do I think I've done what I'm capable of doing. And I think this is an awesome spot to do that. I know a lot of guys come in here and do the same thing."
Lowe's rookie season started off like a rocket.
Called up by the Mariners in July 2006, Lowe tossed 17⅔ consecutive scoreless innings over his first 13 games, a club record. A flame-throwing right-hander, he hit 100 mph for the first time in early August on a balmy day in Baltimore.
"I had an 0-2 count on Ramon Hernandez, their catcher, and I'm like, 'I'm going to throw this as hard as I can,' " Lowe recalled. "I did and it was elevated, and he swung and foul tipped it into the glove. I remember turning and looking and it said 102. I was like, 'Come on, there's no way.' "
Lowe is thankful for then-manager Mike Hargrove throwing him into the fire, saying he wouldn't have the confidence he has now if not for that experience. But he admits his arm might not have been ready to throw so hard, and, by October, he had elbow surgery to regenerate missing cartilage. The procedure is normally performed on the knees of NFL and NBA players. Lowe said it had been done to just one pitcher before him, and that one didn't turn out well. Doctors braced him for the fact his career might be over.
"To get a taste of what I've always dreamed of and to have someone tell you there's a chance it can be taken away from you, in my mind there was no other option but to bounce back," Lowe said.
Lowe missed most of the season in 2007, when he was also diagnosed with Type I diabetes. Lowe called that "another blessing in disguise." While it forced him to alter his diet, he has enjoyed working with the Juvenile Diabetes Association, educating and inspiring kids. "With the medicine we have today, you can live a normal lifestyle, you just have to make sacrifices," he said.
Lowe figures it's a small sacrifice, compared to those starving around the world. Through his Portland, Ore., area church, Lowe and his wife sponsor a child in Ethiopia, a 3-year-old named Lengersh. They send money but also trade photos and letters, receiving updates.
"We're like pen pals," Lowe said. "It's kind of neat."
Lowe returned to the majors late in the 2007 season and had three solid years for the Mariners before getting shipped to Texas in 2010 as part of the Cliff Lee trade. With the Rangers, he appeared in two World Series games in 2011, giving up the David Freese walkoff homer in Game 6.
For the past couple of years, manager Joe Maddon said the Rays had their eyes on Lowe and tried to sign him before last season. Lowe regrets not picking Tampa Bay, spending part of the season with the Angels before finishing in Triple A with Washington. So when the Rays called again this offseason, he jumped at it.
Lowe, who struggled to a 9.26 ERA in 11 appearances in 2013, said he fixed his mechanics while in Triple A and feels "stronger than I've ever been." Maddon said Lowe's slider has been an "incredible" pitch this spring.
"We've liked him for a while," Maddon said. "This guy is a major-league pitcher, and he's got a lot to offer us."
Lowe said he finished last season at 95-97 mph on his fastball and has "a lot left in the tank. "I think I can still hit 100," he said. "I believe it."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TBTimes_JSmith.