Lopez providing sustained O's relief

No matter pitching role, ex-Mexican League player rolling through opposition

April 23, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Rodrigo Lopez says he feels like a long reliever.

His manager, Mike Hargrove, fancies him as more of a short reliever, with the possibility of becoming a starter.

Attaching a label to the former Mexican League standout is proving every bit as difficult as hitting him.

The Orioles will settle for giving him the ball. The rest seems to take care of itself.

Lopez has limited opponents to three earned runs and nine hits in 15 innings as the Orioles prepare for tonight's opener of a three-game series against the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards. Teams are batting .167 against him. And they're looking awfully bad while doing it.

"I haven't seen anybody take a good swing against him all season," said second baseman Jerry Hairston.

The Orioles took a good look at him in spring training after Lopez signed a minor-league contract in November. He made the club as a reliever, gave up two runs on Opening Day and has been almost perfect ever since.

Three times he has given the Orioles four shutout innings, beginning with an April 7 game against the Red Sox. Lopez did it again Friday against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, stranding a runner on third base with none out after replacing B.J. Ryan and allowing only one hit.

It sounds like long relief, but Hargrove doesn't want to keep Lopez in such a confining bottle. Better to pop open the cap and let him breathe.

"Usually when a guy is in a long role, ideally you use him once every 10 days," Hargrove said. "But you don't take an arm like that and say, `We're going to use him once every 10 days.' That's kind of like taking your No. 4 hitter and saying, `You're going to have one at-bat today.' That doesn't make a whole lot of sense. That role is still better for one of our kids right now than Rodrigo.

"We've moved him out of the long role and tried to move him back into a shorter role where he'll throw maybe one or two innings and set up [Jorge] Julio and [Buddy] Groom."

He could eventually do more if leaks continue to spring in the rotation.

Hargrove confirmed over the weekend that Lopez is a candidate to start, as he did while going 10-2 for Culiacan this winter and winning all five decisions in the Mexican League playoffs.

Faced with yesterday's open date, Hargrove apparently will bypass Josh Towers in the Red Sox series. The starters for the last two games haven't been revealed.

"As starters struggle, it opens the option of putting him in the rotation," Hargrove said. "That idea is floating out there, but we really haven't discussed it in any depth. Right now, Rodrigo makes our bullpen stronger and is a winning part of this ballclub."

"Eventually, I'd like to make a couple starts, maybe as an emergency starter if something happens," Lopez said. "I'd like to start, but I'd basically want to help my team. My role right now is kind of a new job for me. I've been a starter for almost all of my career. But I'm getting used to it. I'm comfortable with it. It's good to be in the bullpen, knowing you can be in the game at any time. The way they've been using me makes me feel very confident."

He made the Devil Rays feel pretty inept. They took weak cuts at his pitches, often appearing to be fooled or unable to pick up the ball. Scouts may have a book on Lopez, whose only previous major-league experience consisted of six appearances with San Diego in 2000, but it seems that a few pages are missing.

"You can scout Roger Clemens and know what he likes to do. You still have to try to hit him," Hargrove said. "I'm not trying to compare Lopez to Clemens by any stretch of the imagination, but he locates his fastball well, has a nasty slider and throws strikes. That's a good combination."

"He seems to keep hitters off balance," Hairston said. "The way you look at hitters, it looks like that fastball really gets on them and explodes the last 15, 20 feet. He's got great stuff. He's an asset to our team and I'm happy for him. He came in and has done an incredible job."

Probably a little better than the Orioles should have expected, though their interest was piqued before Lopez clinched the Caribbean Series championship with a four-hit shutout of Puerto Rico.

"What he's doing right now has to be considered more than a pleasant surprise," said Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president for baseball operations. "Even with the positive reports we received on him, this still is the major leagues. And it's not just his physical talent, but his approach to pitching, his presence, his mound demeanor."

If only he came with an easily read label.

"I still feel like I'm a long reliever. That's what I've been doing," he said. "They might use me late in a game if they need me to face a right-hander, but it feels like the same role for now."

NOTE: The Orioles will be without Melvin Mora tonight, though he may return tomorrow. Mora is in Venezuela with his family after the death of his brother last week.

Orioles tonight

Opponent:Boston Red Sox

Site:Camden Yards

Time:7:05

TV/Radio:CSN/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Red Sox's Frank Castillo (1-0, 2.00) vs. Orioles' Scott Erickson (1-2, 3.91)

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