R. Lopez has uplifting turn in keeping Yanks down

June 05, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

Jump ahead of the Yankees 10-0, especially when you've lost two straight to them the way the Orioles had, and the 10 sticks in one's mind more than the 0.

But putting 10s on the scoreboard isn't stop-the-presses news for this team. The zeroes are far harder to come by. The fact that Rodrigo Lopez hung that zero up for six innings yesterday is what made the afternoon at Camden Yards so pleasant. Oh, the 10 didn't hurt, but you still have to get batters out, Yankees batters out.

Lopez kept getting them out. However he was doing it - because he had a big lead early, because the Yankees' lineup was stripped down by injury, because he had his personal catcher guiding him and cranking two homers to boot - it was the third straight start Lopez has not only won, but excelled.

The seven straight losses aren't a distant memory, but at least the questions of what's wrong with Lopez have stopped. And if the mini-surge that has come from this homestand continues, a lot of the credit should go to Lopez. In fact, with so much upheaval around the rest of the staff, very little around him on the field went wrong yesterday. The bats gave him a big push, the bullpen bailed him out, and even the two starters preceding him against the Yankees did well to hold their own.

Little things like that are how momentum builds. Lopez has it, and if it spreads, no one should be surprised. And if his own momentum continues, that shouldn't be a surprise, either.

"Every game is different," Lopez said after yesterday's 11-4 win, "and when you have a game when you have support, you feel more secure. But your poise and your confidence start building game by game, and the games I've had the last two starts kept my level right there."

His first inning and his last inning were his shakiest. He put two Yankees on in the first, but kept them there, and when he got back on the mound for the second, he had a 1-0 lead. See? You remember 10-0, but overlook the fact that starting with that final out of the first inning, Lopez retired 13 of 14 batters. He did it without a strikeout, too. His pitch count didn't hit the red zone until his final four-run inning.

By the time the next sign of trouble came in the sixth, it was, in fact, 10-0. And the trouble he got into may turn out to be more trouble for the Yankees - he ran a fastball up and in and off Derek Jeter's right thumb. He left the game, and all of New York (except Queens, you figure) will hold its breath waiting to see how bad it is.

That put two on with one out, but Lopez got the next two batters and finally hit the wall in the seventh.

The talk afterward centered largely on the offensive output. It wasn't irrelevant, of course. The Yankees made their push, and the relievers had to perform acrobatics to get the Orioles out of those jams - and that all made the Yankees' griping about Corey Patterson stealing second and third in the seventh even more ridiculous, as if the Orioles were rubbing it in on the poor, broken-down Yankees with little more than Jason Giambi and Bernie Williams available to pinch hit.

Add that to the spirit-crushing results of the previous two days, and it reminds the world that with these Orioles playing these Yankees, no lead is safe. Yet, it must be repeated, this one was safe enough, because Lopez made it so.

"He's pitched in a little tougher situations than that lately," manager Sam Perlozzo pointed out when the 10-run cushion was mentioned, "and he's done well."

In the last of his seven straight losses, at RFK two weeks ago, Lopez gave up an early lead. He let the Devil Rays catch him briefly last Tuesday, but still fought and got the win. All told in his three-game streak, he's pitched into at least the seventh each time, has a 3.05 ERA (inflated by that four-run seventh yesterday), has walked just three and averaged fewer than 100 pitches.

He's also done it with Javy Lopez catching him each time. It appears to be helping the pitcher pitch better, the catcher catch better (and, as yesterday showed, hit better), and the manager manage better; Perlozzo has kept Ramon Hernandez in the lineup when he's not catching, and it's worked. He has no reason to change things, he figures, so he's not.

Just as important, every day Lopez throws well is a day the Orioles can put aside worries about Daniel Cabrera's arm, Bruce Chen's backslide, Erik Bedard's inconsistency, the site of Adam Loewen's next start and how many outs the bullpen needs to squeeze out.

Thus, as Rodrigo Lopez gets his game back, everything around him has worked better. That's why as good as that 10 looked, the 0 looked far, far better, and always will.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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