In numbers game, R. Lopez, Mazzilli win

April 05, 2005|By Peter Schmuck

ORIOLES PITCHER Rodrigo Lopez didn't know what was going on. He was sitting behind the desk in the manager's office at Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City on Thursday and wondering why Lee Mazzilli had put him there.

"It was weird," Lopez said. "He told me to turn around and open the cabinet. There were two doors and I opened them up, and there it was."

Inside was a neatly folded jersey bearing the number - 13 - that Lopez had surrendered to the new Orioles manager last year along with his identity as a starting pitcher.

"Honestly, I don't really remember much," Lopez said. "I was so surprised. The only thing I could say was, `This is awesome.' I really appreciated it. It means a lot to me."

Mazzilli obviously sensed that. He also sensed that the young right-hander deserved the unusual display of appreciation for the way he handled a difficult situation last year. Lopez held the pitching staff together during the early months of the season in a long-relief role that clearly was not his first career choice.

"That was respect," Mazzilli said. "He's a real good kid, and he battled through a lot last year."

The number change - and the heartwarming anecdote that came with it - may seem like one of the minor footnotes of yesterday's 4-0 Opening Day victory over the Oakland Athletics. Lopez pitched six scoreless innings and out-dueled former Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito to help the Orioles open the season in style. Sammy Sosa had two hits. Luis Matos hit a big home run. Who cares whether you're wearing No. 19 or No. 13?

Lopez cares, and the fact that Mazzilli was in tune to that may be a sign of how much he grew during his first year as a major league manager.

No one thought twice when the new manager claimed his old number, and no one thought too long about the impact of the bullpen assignment on Lopez, who had established himself in the rotation in 2002 and earned the Opening Day start in 2003 before a strained muscle in his left side pushed him backward.

"I'm sure he didn't like it at first," said Mazzilli, who now wears No. 12, "but he recognized how good he was and how valuable he was."

Maybe so, but he never embraced the long relief role, even though he appeared to be perfect for it. Though he was virtually unhittable, he never allowed himself to consider the possibility that his future would be in middle relief.

Meanwhile, Mazzilli was having his own identity crisis. His first year as a major league manager wasn't going very well, and there were whispers that he could not communicate with his players or his coaches.

There was even a point where rumors surfaced that he might not make it through his first season, but he reached out to his coaching staff and found his voice in the clubhouse and led the team through a respectable second half.

This year's Maz is more comfortable with himself, and that has allowed him to see everyone else in the clubhouse much more clearly. Lopez earned the honor of starting yesterday's opener with a solid exhibition season, but Mazzilli recognized it also was important to make some permanent acknowledgment of the stature Lopez has attained on the Orioles' pitching staff.

"He earned it," Mazzilli said, and left it at that.

There would be no argument from the crowd of 48,271 that watched him allow just seven hits, while the more heralded Zito gave up four runs on six hits in six innings to take the loss.

Lopez proved in 2002, when the Orioles rescued him from the Culiacan Tomato Growers of the Mexican League, that he could win at this level. He proved it again last year with a 1.99 ERA as a reliever and an 11-7 record as a starter. He finished the season sixth in the American League in ERA (3.59) - the highest finish by an Oriole since Mike Mussina finished third in 2000.

He might be the most unlikely No. 1 starter in either league, considering where he came from three years ago and where he found himself last April, but he no longer has to worry about where he fits into the Orioles' pitching staff. That was the message that came through loud and clear on Thursday in Oklahoma City.

Lopez doesn't need a certain uniform number to tell him who he is - and Mazzilli doesn't need to give anyone the shirt off his back to prove he's a decent manager - but one small human gesture showed how far both of them have come in the past year.

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