Starter Lopez is big relief

Hargrove most grateful for move to rotation, as rookie's 9 wins lead staff

July 15, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

How would Orioles manager Mike Hargrove have reacted if told in spring training that pitcher Rodrigo Lopez would lead the staff with nine victories in July?

"I would have said, `How's he going to do that out of the bullpen?' "

Hargrove moved Lopez into the rotation after five relief appearances, which could go down as his wisest decision of the 2002 season. Lopez made his 15th start yesterday, getting by without his best stuff for seven innings to record a 6-3 victory over the Oakland Athletics.

Lopez has the same number of victories as the Orioles' Opening Day rotation of Scott Erickson, Jason Johnson, Sidney Ponson and Josh Towers combined. He'd be the first to point out the benefits of run support, which aided him yesterday as he struggled to keep his fastball and slider down in the strike zone. Others will credit Lopez for proving that his success in the Mexican League wasn't performed with mirrors.

"You always want pleasant surprises during the season," Hargrove said, "and he's one of them."

The Orioles had scored one run in the first three games of this series before erupting for six against Oakland's Cory Lidle. Lopez surrendered two more homers, giving him five in his past two starts and seven in his past four, but he didn't need to be perfect.

"They were hitting pretty good," he said after winning his third consecutive decision. "I was lucky today, I guess. Those guys have a pretty good lineup and they weren't missing."

He kept left fielder Melvin Mora busy. Mora had nine putouts, eight with Lopez pitching, and became well-acquainted with the warning track. Lopez leaned on his changeup like a crutch yesterday while trying to gain better command of his fastball and slider. And he used whatever means possible to fool the Athletics long enough to salvage the final game of this series.

"You don't have to show them that it's not one of your days," Lopez said. "You have to try to throw strikes and do whatever it takes to get an out. If a pitch is working good at that time, don't be afraid to throw it and have confidence in it. I was trying to battle with all that I had."

Both homers, by Jermaine Dye and Miguel Tejada, came on fastballs, as did a run-scoring double by Olmedo Saenz.

"He threw some good pitches down, borderline pitches that the umpire called balls, and he had to raise that pitch some," Hargrove said. "Rodrigo didn't have his best stuff, but he gave us a chance to win."

He always seems to do that. Lopez improved to 8-3 with a 3.28 ERA as a starter, with his other victory coming after four hitless innings of relief on April 11.

The Orioles signed him in November as a minor-league free agent, a transaction that received little notice locally. An 0-3 career record in the majors, compiled in six starts with San Diego in 2000, won't stop the presses. But he made the 25-man roster coming out of spring training and continued to earn the coaching staff's trust.

"When they told me I made the team, that was during the [exhibition] game in Atlanta," he said. "They called me into the office, and by that time they were sending people down, so I was kind of afraid to step into the office.

"When they told me, I was in shock. I didn't know what to do. I walked out to the field and I was so excited. I had a big smile. This is a dream for me.

"I didn't imagine a year ago that I'd have this record in the big leagues."

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