He smiles, batters frown

Lopez: The Orioles' 4-0 rookie pitcher has a likable grin, and nasty stuff.

Orioles

May 10, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

The best smile in America is actually an import.

Orioles rookie Rodrigo Lopez brought it here from Mexico, and when Rick Sutcliffe first saw the toothy grin, it fooled him.

It was 1996, three years after Sutcliffe last pitched for the Orioles, and he was coaching Lopez at Idaho Falls in the Rookie-level Pioneer League.

"The first thing you think when you meet Rodrigo is how nice and wonderful the kid is," Sutcliffe said. "He really does a good job of hiding his toughness."

Sutcliffe had no idea until one day when the opposing pitcher drilled an Idaho Falls batter with a fastball. The moment begged for a payback pitch, but Sutcliffe wasn't sure Lopez could pull it off.

"I went over to him and said, `Lopey, I want you to get somebody,' " Sutcliffe said. "Well, he went out and hit two guys in a row. I had to go out there and tell him to stop."

This season, American League hitters are finding Lopez to be just as ruthless. He enters tonight's start at Tampa Bay with a 4-0 record and 1.91 earned run average. That ERA led the league until yesterday, when Lopez fell off the leader board temporarily, falling one inning short of the qualifying level.

Lopez, 26, is off to one of the best starts by a rookie pitcher in Orioles history. Ben McDonald started 5-0 in 1990, and Rocky Coppinger duplicated that mark in 1996. Willis Roberts began 4-0 last season, and in much the same way, Lopez has emerged from baseball oblivion.

He spent the better part of seven years in the minors - returning home each winter to pitch for the Culiacan Tomato Growers in the Mexican Winter League - before winning his first major-league game this year.

After Lopez beat the Boston Red Sox on April 24, Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said: "The kid may have the best smile in America ... and his slider isn't bad, either."

Valenzuela's influence

Lopez grew up just outside Mexico City, in a suburb called Tlalnepantla. His father played soccer one notch beneath the professional ranks, and, as a youngster, Lopez played some soccer, too.

Soccer has long been Mexico's pastime, but when Lopez was 5, a pudgy kid from a tiny Mexican village called Etchohuaquila became the first major-leaguer to win the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards in the same season.

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela created a stir called Fernandomania. For Lopez, the rest of life came to a halt any time Valenzuela pitched.

"To be honest," Lopez said, "I didn't know anything about baseball until Fernando came on TV."

So imagine Lopez's delight in 1995, when the San Diego Padres signed him out of the Mexican League and introduced him to his childhood hero. Valenzuela spent three seasons pitching for the Padres, and sometimes during spring training, he'd take Lopez to dinner.

During those formative years for Lopez in the Padres' organization, Sutcliffe and Valenzuela became big influences. Sutcliffe, still a Padres broadcaster and instructor, worked with Lopez on his slider, which remains his best pitch.

"Rick Sutcliffe helped me a lot as a person and as a pitcher," Lopez said. "Whenever he saw me, he told me he was cheering for me, and that really meant something coming from a big-league star."

One spring day in 1996, Sutcliffe took Lopez and all his young pitchers to watch Valenzuela throw in a practice session. Valenzuela, still a master of deception then at age 35, went through his workout, then asked Sutcliffe if the group wanted to see anything else.

"I said, `No, I just wanted to show these guys how weak your [stuff] is compared to theirs,' " Sutcliffe said. "He's a good friend of mine, and he threw his glove down, like he was angry.

"I did it as a joke, but there was also a purpose to it. All these guys had better stuff than him. They just had to learn how to use it."

With a large fan base in nearby Tijuana, the Padres have long sought a Mexican-born star who can help fill their seats. Lopez slowly made his way through the Padres' system and finally made the big leagues in 2000.

It wasn't pretty.

In six starts, Lopez went 0-3 with an 8.76 ERA. He had yet to gain confidence in his changeup, and struggled, especially against left-handed hitters, who hit a whopping .444 against him.

Padres to Orioles

Last season was even worse. A rotator cuff injury kept him out for two months, and he never made it past Triple-A. The Padres released him, and the Orioles signed him in November as a minor-league free agent.

"I pretty much understand because [the Padres] have a lot of good young pitchers," Lopez said. "But I think if they would have given me a couple more opportunities, I could pitch in the big leagues for them and probably be the Mexican they were asking for."

Orioles vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift received a call from Lopez's agent, Oscar Suarez. The rest of baseball seemed uninterested.

That would change two months later, when Lopez led the Tomato Growers to the Caribbean Series title, going 10-2 and pitching a four-hit shutout against Puerto Rico to clinch the championship.

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