- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 25, 2002

BALTIMORE The Baltimore Orioles won for the fourth time in five games and for the second time in as many nights against the American League East-leading Boston Red Sox and they can thank a former Tomato Grower for making it possible.
Rookie right-hander Rodrigo Lopez, making his first start for the Orioles, threw 5⅓ strong innings in a 5-3 victory last night over the Red Sox. By the time he departed in the sixth inning, Lopez was the recipient of a standing ovation from the Camden Yards crowd of 29,004.
Not bad for a guy whose previous claim to fame was a complete-game shutout for the Culiacan Tomato Growers in the championship game of last winter's Caribbean Series.
"It was a great thing, winning the championship down there, but it's different," said Lopez, a native of Mexico. "Here all the dreams are based on the big leagues, and to have an ovation from a big-league crowd is great. Nothing can compare to that. There's nothing close to it."
If Lopez keeps this up, his success from the Mexican League may become a mere footnote in his baseball bio. More and more, the Orioles are expecting good things from this wide-eyed 26-year-old who signed as a minor league free agent during the offseason.
"That kid has the best smile, and it was good to see it tonight," manager Mike Hargrove said. "And his slider isn't bad either."
Starting a major league ballgame was nothing new for Lopez, who pitched six times out of the San Diego Padres' rotation in 2000. Still, this start held more significance for Lopez, given the Orioles' potential long-term interest in him.
He earned the promotion to the rotation after posting a 1.80 ERA in five relief appearances, three of which lasted four innings. And when second-year right-hander Josh Towers struggled through his first three starts of the year, the Orioles had reason to give Lopez a shot. He'll continue to get opportunities.
"I imagine he'll make a another start," Hargrove said. "Actually, you can probably write that in blood."
Lopez didn't dominate the Red Sox like he did the Puerto Rican champions in the Caribbean Series, but he did pitch effectively enough to earn his second win of the season and his first as a starter.
The Red Sox, who brought a six-game winning streak to Baltimore only to lose twice in a row to the last-place Orioles, had eight hits against Lopez (2-0) but pushed just two runners across. Despite pitching out of the stretch most of the night, Lopez got the key out when he needed it most, stranding six runners in the first five innings.
The Orioles put just as many runners on against Boston left-hander Darren Oliver (2-1) but were far more successful driving them in. For the second straight night, Baltimore got a balanced offensive attack, with four different players picking up an RBI. Tony Batista went 3-for-3, Geronimo Gil followed his two-homer game with a pair of hits and Gary Matthews made the most of a rare start in right field by going 2-for-3 with a double and two runs scored.
And even though Lopez couldn't get through the sixth inning, Hargrove got another strong performance from his bullpen. He twice summoned left-handers (B.J. Ryan and Buddy Groom) to face Boston's Trot Nixon with a runner on base, and both relievers struck out the Boston outfielder.
Rookie right-hander Rick Bauer continued to pitch well in his new setup role, providing two scoreless innings between Ryan and Groom. And Jorge Julio, despite giving up a run on Nomar Garciaparra's double, retired potential tying run Manny Ramirez with two outs in the ninth to notch his third career save (and second in two nights).
"It's a mental thing," said Julio of closing on consecutive nights. "If you are mentally prepared, you can go two or three nights in a row."
With the win, the Orioles assured themselves of their second series victory of the season. They can pull off a surprising sweep of the Red Sox this afternoon, though they'll have to defeat ace Pedro Martinez.
Notes
Right fielder Jay Gibbons sat out last night's game for a variety of reasons. Gibbons, who leads the team with seven home runs, is in a mini-slump (1-for-7) and hasn't fared as well against left-handed pitching. He's also still feeling the effects of a collision with Hairston in Saturday's game at Tampa Bay, as well as a stomach virus that plagued him over the weekend. … Center fielder Melvin Mora, who made his return to Baltimore after spending three days in Venezuela following the murder of his brother, was hit by a pitch near his right knee in the fifth inning and left the game. The injury is not considered serious, and Mora's status is day-to-day.


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