J. Lopez learning brave new O's world

Orioles: Used to catching Cy Young Award winners in Atlanta, he is quickly bonding with a younger staff.

March 27, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The male bonding commences with a few handshakes and an exchange of pleasantries. It's mostly small talk, an icebreaker before the real introductions begin.

The pitchers in the Orioles' spring training camp are curious about their new catcher, and he's just as curious about them. They know all about Javy Lopez's 43-homer season, the division titles, the 20-game winners he's guided behind home plate. They don't need a name tag or baseball card to recognize him.

If only Lopez had the same advantages. He's one man undergoing a crash course on an entire staff, and he knows virtually nothing about it.

More than a month has passed since Lopez dropped his gear in front of his locker and began the next phase of his professional life. The Orioles are down to their last seven exhibition games before the April 4 opener. Where has the time gone?

"It hasn't been bad at all," he said yesterday before heading to Vero Beach, where the Orioles defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers, 11-4. "I thought it was going to take me longer, but no."

Lopez broke into the majors with the Atlanta Braves in 1992, became a starter two years later and grew comfortable with a rotation that didn't change much. He rarely caught Greg Maddux, but always will be linked to Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, owners of a combined three Cy Young Awards. There had to be a mild shock to Lopez's system the first time he glanced across the room at a pitchers-catchers meeting and spotted Sidney Ponson and Kurt Ainsworth. Or the first time he flashed signs to Rodrigo Lopez and Eric DuBose.

What are the chances he had even heard of Matt Riley, let alone knew that the young left-hander used a plus-curveball to rack up many of his strikeouts?

"It's just a matter of talking to Javy and telling him about myself and the things I like to do, finding out the way he likes to approach hitters," said Riley.

"Javy's had to handle a veteran staff. That makes it easier for us. When he gets to know us, he'll be able to move around the plate. Right now, being in a different league, he's still trying to adjust to the hitters and to us. It's a harder job for him. It's obviously going to take some time to get on the same page and click because he's trying to figure out 12 pitchers."

The process takes many forms. Lopez chats with individuals before games and between innings, his mind absorbing details like a dry sponge. He can sit beside the day's starter during the morning hours and prepare, but the best education comes when they're separated by 60 feet, six inches.

"I learn about them through the experience of catching them during the game. That's the only way to really get to know them," said Lopez, who hit his second spring home run yesterday. "We also meet earlier, whether it's a rookie or a veteran. And every time I talk to them, I get to know them even better.

"Every game," said Rodrigo Lopez, "he makes a little comment about how we're going to pitch or what pitches I want to use. Now I don't have to take as much time between pitches, I don't have to shake him off every time. We're on a good pace. We're pretty close to getting to the point where we want to be."

Added Riley: "As the year goes on, we'll be listening to him more as opposed to him listening to us."

Because manager Lee Mazzilli inevitably replaces Lopez before the later innings, he hasn't been paired with many of the club's relievers. "During the season," Lopez said, "is when I get to know them better."

Lopez has caught Rick Bauer only once this spring, so they won't become as familiar with each other until charter flights to Chicago and Seattle have replaced long bus rides to Fort Myers and Port St. Lucie.

"You're going to have to be able to communicate what you want to do to your catcher, so you have to take the initiative," Bauer said.

"If you're in a situation, especially during the season, where you haven't worked a lot with him, if you like to throw a certain pitch at a certain time and work a hitter a certain way, you have to speak up, you have to shake him off, maybe call him out to the mound."

Mike DeJean, who was signed to be the right-handed setup man and occasional closer, expects his relationship with Lopez to evolve quickly.

"It only takes one outing," he said. "A lot of guys with straight four-seam fastballs won't throw a lot of pitches inside to guys. I throw a lot of sinkers. I have to do things a little different. I'm looking forward to pitching to him so we kind of know where each other is going to be."

The first meaningful game probably will include at least one mound conference between Lopez and Ponson.

"I think he's doing fine with me," Ponson said. "He just has to put his suggestion down and if I don't like it, I'll shake my head no. If I like it, I'll throw it. I'm simple to work with. I don't try to trick people. I try to make it simple for everybody else.

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