Lopez pitches in for surging O's

He holds down Red Sox in first start for Orioles

5-3 win is 4th in 5 games

April 25, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Just three months removed from his days pitching for the Culiacan Tomato Growers, Orioles starter Rodrigo Lopez received an ovation last night he won't soon forget.

When Lopez left the mound in the sixth inning with a two-run lead against the first-place Boston Red Sox, he awkwardly doffed his cap for the crowd of 29,004 at Camden Yards.

Three innings later, Lopez watched from the dugout as Orioles reliever Jorge Julio put the finishing touches on a 5-3 victory.

For Lopez, it was his first win as a major-league starter. For the Orioles, it was their fourth win in their past five games. After winning the first two games of this series, they'll go for a sweep today against Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez.

"All your dreams are based on the big leagues," said Lopez, who hails from Tlalnepantla, Mexico. "And to have an ovation from a big-league crowd is great. Nothing can compare to that. There's nothing close."

The Orioles signed Lopez as a minor-league free agent this off-season, grabbing him before he turned heads in January at the Caribbean Series. He went 10-2 with a 2.49 ERA for the Tomato Growers of the Mexican Winter League and won all five of his decisions in the postseason.

Lopez (2-0) had been brilliant in five appearances out of the bullpen. With Josh Towers struggling in his first three starts, the team was quick to move Lopez into the starting rotation.

It wasn't completely new for Lopez. He made six starts for the San Diego Padres two years ago but never earned a victory and posted an 8.76 ERA. Last year, he missed two months with a shoulder injury and spent the rest of the season in the minor leagues.

So Lopez, 26, had to prove himself in Mexico to get here, which made his first big-league start since June 13, 2000, all the more sweet. Lopez held the Red Sox to two runs on eight hits over 5 1/3 innings.

"The kid may have the best smile in America," said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove, who took the ball from Lopez with one out in the sixth inning. "And his slider isn't bad, either."

Lopez wasn't perfect. The Red Sox had one hit against him in every inning he pitched, but he made big pitches when he had to, keeping Boston hitless in four at-bats with runners in scoring position.

It wound up being a frustrating night for the Red Sox, as they stranded a runner every inning.

The Orioles, meanwhile, continued to produce some timely hitting. In their previous six victories, they had to come from behind to win, but last night they never trailed.

Tony Batista had a two-out, run-scoring single in the first inning. Geronimo Gil and Jerry Hairston hit back-to-back, one-out doubles in the second, giving the Orioles a 2-0 lead.

After Boston came back to tie it, the Orioles took a 3-2 lead on Darren Oliver's wild pitch in the fifth inning. Jeff Conine followed with a sacrifice fly, scoring Gary Matthews, and David Segui added a run-scoring single in the sixth.

Oliver (2-1) took the loss, allowing four runs on eight hits in 4 1/3 innings.

Hargrove removed Lopez after 75 pitches, since he hadn't thrown more than 62 in any of his previous five appearances. B.J. Ryan, Rick Bauer and Buddy Groom combined to pitch 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief.

Julio gave up one run in the ninth but still earned his third save and second in two nights.

"Every one of them is hitting their spots right now," said Red Sox leadoff batter Johnny Damon. "I think anyone who faced these guys the last two games would have come out with a loss. It'd be the same thing for the Yankees if they were here."

For the first time all season, the Orioles are on a decent roll, and Lopez pretty much assured himself another turn in the starting rotation.

"I imagine he'll make another start," Hargrove said. "You can probably write that in blood."

Lopez said he had his mind on the big leagues all winter as he toiled for the Tomato Growers. But as he stood in the clubhouse, with a tiny 2.21 ERA, he admitted the success has surprised him a little.

"To be honest," he said, "it's quicker than I thought."

O's results

Past 10 games

Date Opponent Result WP/LP

4-14 at Chi. W. Sox W, 9-4 Maduro

4-15 at Chi. W. Sox L, 4-13 Johnson

4-16 at N.Y. Yankees W, 5-4 Bauer

4-17 at N.Y. Yankees L, 1-7 Towers

4-18 at N.Y. Yankees L, 4-8 Erickson

4-19 at Tampa Bay W, 6-5, 14 Julio

4-20 at Tampa Bay W, 6-3 Johnson

4-21 at Tampa Bay L, 1-2 Ponson

4-23 Boston W, 7-5 Erickson

4-24 Boston W, 5-3 Lopez

Orioles today

Opponent: Boston Red Sox

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 3:05 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Red Sox's Pedro Martinez (2-0, 4.43) vs. Orioles' Calvin Maduro (1-1, 5.06)

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