R. Lopez rock-solid, keeps O's on roll, 3-1

He blanks Rangers for 6 2/3 as Orioles win 5th in row, ruin Erickson's return

August 08, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

It was a homecoming of sorts for Scott Erickson yesterday as he returned to Baltimore for the first time since the Orioles let him go as a free agent. All the attention was supposed to fall upon him. The afternoon was ripe for a little nostalgia.

So what was Rodrigo Lopez doing crashing his party like a high school senior?

The focus shifted in a hurry, to a pitcher who twice was assigned to the bullpen but turned in one of the Orioles' finest starts this season in a 3-1 victory over the Texas Rangers before 44,961 at Camden Yards.

Mixing in his slider and changeup to keep the Rangers guessing wrong, Lopez (9-7) allowed only two hits and walked none in 6 2/3 scoreless innings.

As the ovation built for him, Lopez waved his cap to the crowd before disappearing into the Orioles' dugout. He was the second starter in two days to leave in the seventh with a shutout intact, joining left-hander Erik Bedard, who eventually was charged with a run in Friday's win.

"Once you get it rolling," Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said, "it can be a domino effect."

The bases were empty when Lopez got the hook. Unlike Bedard, his line wouldn't be smeared.

"What a great game he pitched," Mazzilli said.

"If we can always pitch like that," Rafael Palmeiro said, "we wouldn't lose. But that's a lot to ask."

The Orioles (51-57) have outscored the Rangers 12-2 in the series so far while moving to within six games of .500 for the first time since June 15. With five straight wins, they've matched their longest streak of the season and are percentage points behind the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for third place in the American League East.

"Now we've got to keep the momentum going and try to take advantage of it," Palmeiro said.

Shortstop Miguel Tejada reached 100 RBIs for the fifth straight season, leaving him 42 short of Palmeiro's club record with 54 games remaining. Tejada gave the Orioles a 1-0 lead in the first inning with a two-out double that scored David Newhan.

"What's more important and what makes me happy is the way we're playing," he said.

With their average dropping 12 points in the past 20 games, the Rangers shook up their lineup yesterday by moving Alfonso Soriano into the leadoff role after batting him third, and slotting Gary Matthews behind him.

Little good that did.

Soriano hit a bases-empty home run in the ninth off closer Jorge Julio, the ball slamming off the foul pole in left field, but it didn't influence the outcome.

The first 10 Rangers were retired before former Oriole Gary Matthews lofted a single into center field. He was wiped out on a double play, so Lopez faced the minimum number of batters through four innings.

Hank Blalock led off the fifth with a single for the Rangers' other hit off Lopez, who set down eight in a row before leaving in the seventh with his pitch count at 94 and Blalock, a left-handed hitter, coming up.

Mazzilli turned to left-hander B.J. Ryan, who got a called third strike on Blalock. Ryan also turned in a scoreless eighth to lower his ERA to 1.65.

"That's his spot," Mazzilli said of Ryan's appearance in the seventh. "You've got to go with your best there. Rodrigo did a great job, and you want him to go out on a good note. And that's B.J.'s job right there."

Said Lopez: "I never [question] his decisions or any manager's. I'd like to go on in every game. I don't want to come out. If that was my decision, I would stay in the game. But Maz made his decision, and it was the right decision. It was good for the team."

Exhibiting almost impeccable control, Lopez continued an encouraging trend for the team.

The Orioles haven't walked a batter in four of their past 10 games. They're averaging 3.77 walks per nine innings since Ray Miller replaced Mark Wiley as pitching coach, compared to 4.66 before his arrival.

"Ray is Ray," Mazzilli said. "He's been around a long time. He had some of these guys, and he knows about them. He's done a great job."

Both teams celebrated the 1980s yesterday, which is where Erickson's fastball stayed most of the day. He topped out at 90 mph but mostly came in at 87-89.

The Orioles scored twice off him in the third, on a sacrifice fly by Javy Lopez and single by B.J. Surhoff, who went 2-for-4 and raised his average to .335.

When Brian Roberts singled in the sixth, the Orioles had their 10th hit to go with a 3-0 lead.

After Roberts advanced on a passed ball, center fielder Lance Nix saved a run by chasing down Newhan's fly ball in front of the Orioles' bullpen and crashing into the fence. Roberts retreated to second base, and Erickson retreated to the dugout as reliever Frank Francisco entered the game.

"He was throwing the ball good," Palmeiro said. "The ball was running real well. He had good control. He kept the ball down."

Erickson spent nine seasons with the Orioles, but he missed 2001 after undergoing ligament-replacement surgery on his right elbow and sat out last year following shoulder surgery.

The New York Mets designated him for assignment after two starts this season, and Texas acquired him at the non-waiver trade deadline. Erickson made his first appearance with the Rangers yesterday.

"It was nice to come back here," Erickson said. "I had some great memories here and great years and a great experience playing for the Orioles, and still there's nothing I would've rather done today than beat them."

Orioles today

Opponent: Texas Rangers

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 1:35 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Rangers' Kenny Rogers (13-4, 4.29) vs. Orioles' Sidney Ponson (6-12, 5.81)

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