R. Lopez gets ball as No. 1 starter

5 pitchers pleased as Perlozzo sets Orioles' rotation


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. --They entered manager Sam Perlozzo's office yesterday morning five strong, eager to hear when their 2006 season will officially get under way.

Perlozzo and pitching coach Leo Mazzone summoned the Orioles' starting pitchers and informed them of their position in the team's rotation, with the highlight being the appointment of right-hander Rodrigo Lopez to take the mound for the April 3 season opener against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Camden Yards.

After Perlozzo made the announcement, which was little more than a formality, the rest of the starters applauded Lopez, who will draw his second straight Opening Day start for the Orioles and his third in four seasons.

"Perfect," said Daniel Cabrera of the decision to slot Lopez as the staff's No. 1. "He is the man in the rotation."

"For all he has went through and for how well he pitched last year, Rodrigo definitely deserved to be the No. 1," Bruce Chen agreed.

"My first time I was Opening [Day] starter, I was really nervous," Lopez said. "I was thinking too much, but I got through it. But last year ... I took it like a veteran, like it was just another game. I try to be the guy for the team. I feel pretty excited right now."

Perlozzo filled out the rest of his rotation with left-hander Erik Bedard behind Lopez on April 5 after a day off. Kris Benson, the right-hander who the Orioles acquired in an offseason trade with the New York Mets to fill out the rotation, will close out the Devil Rays' series.

Cabrera, the 24-year-old right-hander, will start at home against the Boston Red Sox on April 7, with Chen, the journeyman left-hander who was arguably the Orioles' most consistent starter last season, being slotted as the club's fifth starter.

As a group, the Orioles' rotation has a career 177-173 record. While admitting that the participation of four of the club's five starters in the World Baseball Classic made matters difficult, Perlozzo said that he was comfortable with however the rotation shook out.

"I told them I felt Rodrigo deserved to be No. 1 because of what he has done in the past," Perlozzo said. "They know they all have to pitch and do well. I told them they were going to be the backbone of our team. I was counting on the starters to band together. I think we are going to be a lot better than people think."

Signed in 2001 as a minor league free agent, Lopez has developed into the one mainstay in the Orioles rotation. He has a 51-40 career record over four seasons in an Orioles uniform. In what was an inconsistent 2005 campaign, Lopez still led the Orioles with 15 wins - he was 15-12 with a 4.90 ERA - and the durable right-hander tied the Oakland Athletics' Barry Zito for the American League lead with 35 starts.

"Five years ago, I wouldn't think that this could happen," said Lopez, who was Mexico's top starter in the World Baseball Classic. "My goal was to pitch in the big leagues and to try to establish myself. My goals weren't to be a No. 1 starter or anything like that. I think I've been pretty blessed. I think I just worked hard and tried to get better day by day."

Lopez laughed when Perlozzo's announcement drew applause from his teammates.

"It's good to have their support," he said. "We have a pretty good bond among the starters. One of the ideas is to try and stay together."

Lopez then reminded reporters of the fishing trip that the rest of the Orioles starters took earlier this spring, where the group, which included catcher Geronimo Gil, caught no fish in a five-hour span, but enjoyed "laughing and telling stories." The trip was organized by Benson, who as a 31-year-old, is the veteran of the staff.

Benson, the only Orioles starter not to pitch in the Classic, was acquired to be one of the anchors of the Orioles' rotation, but he said he was pleased with his No. 3 slotting. Perlozzo said that it had more to do with matchups and the staggered schedule of guys returning from the Classic, than Benson's uneven spring performance.

"I think it is going to be a real good mix," said Benson, who has a 5.54 ERA in four spring starts. "We have a righty, lefty, righty, huge righty and a lefty. I think splitting Rodrigo and I is a good thing. I think we throw a lot of similar things as far as our pitch selection. To throw Bedard in between us, I think it is a good move.

"But ultimately, it doesn't really matter where you fall. It's just a matter of going out there and pitching well." jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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