Lopez feeling far more than relief as ace

With grit, effectiveness in opener, No. 1 starter puts 'pen behind him

April 05, 2005|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

A year ago at this time, Rodrigo Lopez was lodged in the Orioles' bullpen, not exactly thrilled with his status as a relief pitcher after spending the vast majority of his previous two seasons with the team in the starting rotation.

Yesterday, there was the same Rodrigo Lopez strolling to the mound at Camden Yards with a new number and a new outlook, his spot as the Opening Day starter regained.

"I was upset," Lopez said about what he construed as a demotion last spring. "But I tried to follow the manager's decision. I think I did everything I could to get back into the rotation. The one thing I learned last year was how to control myself, to get my emotions right."

It was a lesson he applied well from the first pitch of 2004. In the opener against Boston, he retired Johnny Damon to end a sixth-inning Red Sox threat and finished with 1 1/3 key scoreless innings in an Orioles victory.

He never sulked, functioning as the team's most effective reliever for nearly two months before returning to the rotation.

Now, restored as No. 1, he pitched six shutout innings with grit and resourcefulness yesterday as the Orioles defeated Oakland, 4-0.

"It was not his best," said catcher Javy Lopez. "But he looks a lot more comfortable. He knows with the lineup we have, he's well protected [by run-scoring potential]. He got the outs."

"He did exactly what we hoped for," said pitching coach Ray Miller. "We want to get him and the others going into the seventh inning because I think we have a quality bullpen. The whole spring we talked about managing innings. He's just good quality."

The A's weren't playing the gracious guests from the start. Leadoff man Mark Kotsay extended Lopez to 10 pitches before being retired on a fly ball, and the pitcher had to work hard in every inning, stranding Oakland runners in scoring position in each of the next five before leaving after a tough, 103-pitch outing.

"I threw a lot of pitches every inning and went deep into counts," Lopez said. "So, I give a lot of credit to my defense. They made the plays."

Manager Lee Mazzilli gave Lopez the shirt off his back as spring training wound down, surrendering the No. 13 he wore last season to his lead pitcher and taking No. 12 himself. Lopez has always preferred No. 13, the number he wore for the Orioles in 2003.

"It was something that meant a lot to me," said the pitcher. "I will wear it with pride."

There is no undercurrent of dissatisfaction with Lopez, who worked hard to re-establish himself as the lead guy, although he wasn't happy with the bullpen duty.

"I feel real satisfied," he said. "I'm glad Maz decided to give me the Opening Day start. I think it's a reward."

A reward that has already paid one dividend.

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