Bullpen's fast start fueled by R. Lopez

ORIOLES FOCUS

Baseball

A Look Inside

April 18, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Funny how things work out.

Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli agonized over the decision to move rookie Erik Bedard into the regular-season starting rotation. He worried about the psychological impact that it might have on projected starter Rodrigo Lopez, who was the odd man out as spring training drew to a close.

It was, Mazzilli said, the toughest decision he has had to make since becoming the Orioles' manager, but there were too many good reasons why it was the best move for the club as the club faced a difficult April schedule.

There is little question now that it was the key move of the spring, but not for the reasons that Mazzilli outlined at the time.

The Orioles entered Friday with the most effective bullpen in the major leagues, and you can make the case that if Lopez were not doing such a terrific and versatile job in middle relief, the team would have lost six of its first eight games and be sitting at the bottom of the American League East standings.

Lopez pitched three scoreless innings Thursday night to quiet a wild slugfest at Fenway Park and buy time for the Orioles to escape from Boston with a big extra-inning victory. The rest of the bullpen was just as effective, giving the Orioles a total of seven innings of scoreless, three-hit relief, but it was Lopez who threw a blanket over a Red Sox lineup that scored seven runs in four innings against staff ace Sidney Ponson.

It wasn't the first time. Lopez turned in a key appearance in the Orioles' Opening Night victory over Pedro Martinez and the Red Sox. He also came through in the 13-inning victory over the Red Sox at Camden Yards four days later.

The Orioles went 3-2 in two series against a team that is expected to give the New York Yankees all they can handle at the top of the AL East standings, and Lopez came up big in all three victories. Including a brief appearance against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays last weekend, he has pitched six scoreless innings and given up just three hits.

He has not been alone. The Orioles' bullpen entered the weekend series against the Toronto Blue Jays leading the American League with a 2.09 ERA. That ranked them behind only the streaking Florida Marlins (0.96) and the surprising Cincinnati Reds (2.05) among the 30 major league teams.

Several other Orioles relievers - most notably B.J. Ryan, Buddy Groom and Rick Bauer - also have pitched impressively, but Lopez has been the glue that has held things together during an up-and-down first two weeks for the youthful starting rotation.

The front office gambled that the team would be able to compete in baseball's toughest division with four inexperienced starting pitchers. Time will tell. The early returns have been - at best - mixed. It has fallen to the bullpen to make the best of an unpredictable situation and, so far, it has done just that.

Lopez looked like the steal of the century when the Orioles pulled him off the roster of the Mexican League's Culiacan Tomato Growers before the 2002 season. He won 15 games and was the team's Opening Day starter last year.

One discouraging year later, Mazzilli had to call him in during the last week of spring training and tell him that he didn't even rate a place in the starting rotation. It was a painful moment for manager and player, but Mazzilli was convinced that it was the best thing for the team.

He didn't know the half of it.

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