Treated like king in Mexico, Lopez is now ace for O's

Opening Day starter helped Culiacan capture Caribbean Series in 2002

March 27, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The Culiacan Tomato Growers were struggling in the Mexican Winter League this January, and their fans were clamoring for Orioles pitcher Rodrigo Lopez.

He sat in the stands. He heard their pleas. He felt terrible that he couldn't help.

"People think you're starting to feel like a superstar, like their league isn't good enough for you," he said. "That wasn't the case. I really wanted to do it. I appreciate the Tomatoes for all the chances they gave me."

One year earlier, when he was still a major league nobody, Lopez helped turn the Tomatoes into somebodies. He won five postseason games and threw a four-hit shutout to clinch the Caribbean Series title against Puerto Rico early in 2002.

Culiacan threw a parade for the Tomatoes. Mexico treated them as national heroes.

The joy ride didn't stop there for Lopez. Last year with the Orioles, he went from a minor-league free agent to runner-up in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.

"Rodrigo is very popular in Mexico," said Orioles catcher Geronimo Gil, a fellow Mexico native. "He's big-time right now."

On Monday, Lopez will be the Orioles' Opening Day starter at Camden Yards, and he seems to be handling the assignment with the same calm with which he has handled everything else over the past 16 months.

It has been quite a whirlwind.

"Starting on Opening Day is something you dream about," Lopez said. "I never expected it to happen this quick, but there are a lot of people behind me who want me to do the best I can. After the season I had last year, they expect me to do even better."

Lopez might have sneaked up on some teams last season, when he went 15-9 with a 3.57 ERA. In one prior stint in the big leagues, he had gone 0-3 with an 8.76 ERA for the San Diego Padres in 2000.

Now, he's the closest thing the Orioles have to an ace.

The only pitching Lopez did this past offseason was for the major league all-stars - Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, et cetera - who toured Japan. He won two games there, then went back to Culiacan to watch the Tomatoes, as a fan.

Their owner didn't just ask Lopez to come back; he practically begged.

Eventually, the team understood, but there were other people who didn't.

"I was just really concerned about all the innings I pitched the year before that," Lopez said. "I would smile and say, `I will think about it.' People who really understand baseball, they understood."

The Orioles didn't want Lopez to pitch much this winter because he had thrown about 300 innings in the previous 12 months, including a team-high 196 2/3 innings for Baltimore.

Lopez threw 11 innings in Japan, then did what the Orioles wanted him to do most. Rest.

"I thought he got a little tired near the end [of last season]," Orioles pitching coach Mark Wiley said. "Stuff-wise, he was as good, but his command probably wasn't quite as good as it was, and he ran into some deeper counts."

Lopez said he definitely feels stronger this spring, and he has the results to show it with a 3-0 record and 1.96 ERA. Yesterday, in his final spring tuneup, Lopez allowed one run on two hits over five innings against the Florida Marlins.

Lopez, 27, arrived at spring training with his wife, Romy, expecting their first child. Her original due date was Saturday, which would been a lot to think about two days before Opening Day, but little Rodrigo Gael Lopez was born March 7, taking a big load off his father's mind.

"[Having a baby] changes everything in your life, and I think in a positive way," Lopez said. "Now, I've got one more reason to go out and do my best.

"I've got to support my kid."

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