`Ace' Lopez gets O's out of hole

He beats Rays to go 6-0 in July as team ends four-game skid, 12-2

August 01, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - At the end of June, the Orioles looked at Rodrigo Lopez as their most pleasant surprise. One spectacular month later, they would be hard-pressed to consider him anything less than their ace.

Orioles manager Mike Hargrove isn't one to bestow that title on just anyone. It takes years of sustained success before he'll label a pitcher an ace. Hargrove doesn't know what to call Lopez other than a godsend because who knows where this club would be had this rookie not been around for July?

Lopez finished the month with another victory last night, going six solid innings against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and leaving with an 11-run lead, as the Orioles ended their four-game losing streak with a 12-2 victory at Tropicana Field.

In six July starts, Lopez went 6-0 with a 2.57 ERA.

He is the first Orioles pitcher to win six games in one month since Mike Boddicker in May 1984, and the first to go 6-0 in one month since Dennis Martinez in May 1979.

"What he's done has certainly brightened things around here considerably," Hargrove said, "because he's a young guy and fits what we're trying to establish and build."

Lopez had his finest month to date at a time when the team needed him most. The team finished July at 11-14, and no other starter had more than one victory.

Lopez, in fact, is responsible for the Orioles' only two wins in their past nine games. Besides making a strong case for American League Pitcher of the Month honors, Lopez continued to make a bid for AL Rookie of the Year.

He is 12-3 with a 2.94 ERA, ranking among the league leaders in both won-loss percentage (.800) and ERA. He is also 6-0 when he pitches after an Orioles loss and 10-0 in night games.

Not bad, considering his best previous work was for the Culiacan Tomato Growers of the Mexican Winter League.

"I don't know that he's done it yet, but he's really started to establish himself," Hargrove said.

Even though Lopez doesn't seem to need it, the Orioles continue to shower him with run support. In his six July starts, they averaged 8.3 runs.

"This month was good for me, but I wasn't trying to do something different," Lopez said. "I'm just trying to do my best. A lot of the credit should go to the hitters because I've had good run support."

After getting outscored in their past four games 32-7, the Orioles pounced on Devil Rays pitchers Luis De Los Santos and Victor Zambrano last night.

De Los Santos (0-3) remained winless in three major-league starts, allowing four earned runs in four innings and lowering his ERA to 11.57. Zambrano allowed eight runs in 2 2/3 innings.

Chris Richard, who missed the season's first 103 games to injury, quickly made up for lost time, going 2-for-4 with a home run, double and three RBIs.

As the designated hitter, Richard hit seventh in the lineup, and his first at-bat came in the second inning. De Los Santos grooved a fastball, and Richard drilled the first major-league pitch he has seen all season over the right-field wall.

"When you don't play in a big-league game for nine months, you're always going to be anxious," Richard said. "Those are all natural, and if I wasn't a little anxious and didn't have a little adrenaline rushing, I should quit playing ball."

He just missed a grand slam in the seventh, hitting a pitch from Zambrano just beneath the yellow line that extends above the left-field wall.

Richard, who homered in five of his past seven games for Triple-A Rochester, had to settle for a two-run double.

"It's real obvious he's had a lot of time to work on his hitting," Hargrove said. "His mechanics and his fundamentals are very sound right now, and I don't know that they were ever consistently as sound as they were last year from what I saw tonight."

The Orioles sent 12 batters to the plate in a six-run seventh inning, turning this one into a laugher. Of course, they weren't laughing because they had been on the other end of two of these in the previous three days.

Chris Singleton had four of the Orioles' 18 hits, and Jerry Hairston had three, including his third homer of the season. Hairston, who has regained his hold on the starting second baseman's job, has hit in nine consecutive games, raising his average from .240 to .271.

Orioles tonight

Opponent:Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Site:Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.

Time:7:15

TV/Radio:Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Sidney Ponson (4-5, 4.31) vs. Devil Rays' Jorge Sosa (1-3, 5.72)

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