Lopez's last act ends in 3-2 loss

Rookie of Year candidate gives gritty effort vs. Jays but finishes on 1-4 slide

September 26, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

TORONTO -- If Rodrigo Lopez needed a dominant performance last night to bolster his Rookie of the Year chances, he came up a little short.

Then again, the final impression Lopez left on the voters won't diminish the one he left with his Orioles teammates.

In his last start of the season, Lopez held the Toronto Blue Jays to three runs in seven innings, with his best battles coming against fellow Rookie of the Year candidate Eric Hinske.

For the Orioles, it was another strong effort gone to waste. Blue Jays rookie Mark Hendrickson tossed seven innings without allowing an earned run, and Toronto held on for a 3-2 victory at SkyDome.

The stretch that has turned the Orioles' season upside down has extended to 28 losses in 32 games, including 10 in a row, eight in a row and now eight in a row again.

Lopez (15-9) might be named the Orioles' Most Valuable Player this season, but he couldn't lift them out of their recent doldrums. On Aug. 21, three days before this horrific stretch started, he was 14-5 with a 3.14 ERA.

In his final six starts, Lopez went 1-4 with a 5.50 ERA.

"I just think for my first full year in the big leagues, it was a good year," Lopez said. "That [Rookie of the Year talk] is nothing I can control. That's for somebody else to decide."

Hinske was the popular choice to win American League rookie honors from the moment he came to the Blue Jays from Oakland in a trade for Billy Koch. After going 1-for-4 with a run scored last night, Hinske is now batting .278 with 23 home runs and 82 RBIs.

Those numbers still pale in comparison to last year's Rookie of the Year recipients. AL winner Ichiro Suzuki hit .350 and stole 56 bases, and National League winner Albert Pujols hit .329 with 37 home runs and 130 RBIs.

But Hinske leads all American League rookies in most offensive categories, including runs (94), hits (153), homers and RBIs.

"Hinske's had good games," Orioles reliever B.J. Ryan said, "but we've watched Lopey pitch day in and day out, and you can't say enough about what he's done this year. It's been quality start after quality start. He's taken some tough losses on the way, but he never stops."

Lopez leads all AL rookies in victories with 15, and that is the most by an Orioles rookie since Mike Boddicker won 16 games in 1983. Lopez also has a 3.57 ERA and 196 2/3 innings pitched.

Not bad for a guy the Orioles plucked off the Culiacan Tomato Growers of the Mexican Winter League.

"He's had a good year, and I think that he deserves Rookie of the Year," said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove. "But if he doesn't get it, that doesn't take away from what he's been able to accomplish."

The final head-to-head meeting between Hinske and Lopez lived up to its billing. Hinske singled and scored the tying run in the first inning and hit a soft lineout to first in his second at-bat.

In the fifth inning, Hinske battled Lopez in an eight-pitch at-bat before flying out to the base of the left-field wall. The two staged another eight-pitch battle in the seventh, and this time Lopez struck him out on a nifty changeup.

"I wasn't thinking about [the rookie award]," Lopez said. "I was just trying to get him out."

For the season, Hinske finished 3-for-8 against Lopez with three singles and a run scored. Lopez finished 0-3 against the Blue Jays overall, with a 7.63 ERA.

Toronto took a 2-1 lead in the first on a sacrifice fly by Jose Cruz Jr. Vernon Wells, 23, hit a bases-empty homer in the fifth, becoming the youngest Toronto player to have a 100-RBI season.

Silent for most of the night against Hendrickson (3-0), the Orioles put a scare into Blue Jays closer Kelvim Escobar in the ninth. Chris Singleton hit a leadoff double and scored on a single by Marty Cordova.

But with runners on first and second, first baseman Carlos Delgado made a diving stop to steal extra bases from pinch hitter Jay Gibbons, and Melvin Mora struck out to end the game.

"It was a good battle," Lopez said. "But it's been a tough month for the whole team."

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays

Site: SkyDome, Toronto

Time: 7:05

TV/Radio: CSN/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Pat Hentgen (0-3, 7.88) vs. Blue Jays' Esteban Loaiza (8-10, 6.01)

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