- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 27, 2002

BOSTON - If this were the first time Rodrigo Lopez pitched a gem for the Baltimore Orioles, or the first time he beat the Boston Red Sox, or the first time he silenced a full house at Fenway Park, it might have come as a surprise.

But when you've already done all of the above and when you've won every time you've pitched this month, it's no longer cause for exuberant celebration.

It's just another night at the office for one of the best rookie pitchers in baseball perhaps the eventual American League Rookie of the Year.

Baltimore's 9-2 romp over the Red Sox last night was a stroll through the park. For the fifth time this month, Lopez started, lasted at least seven innings and emerged with a victory.

"We expect him to win when he goes out there," first baseman Jay Gibbons said. "When he goes out there, it seems like we have more confidence because we know he's going to come right at them. He's been like that all year."

Buoyed by his teammates' five-run third inning, Lopez (11-3) was free to pitch in total comfort. He allowed one earned run and four hits in eight innings, walked one, struck out eight, improved to 5-0 with a 2.75 ERA in July and snapped the Orioles' three-game losing streak.

And with yet another dazzling performance against the Red Sox, Lopez made an even stronger case for Rookie of the Year consideration.

"They've been talking about that, but what I want is to try to establish myself in the big leagues," Lopez said. "And at the end of this year, we'll see. We've got two months left, and anything can happen. If that happens, I'll be so happy. If not, well, I'll be happy to stay with a team in the major leagues."

Plenty of pitchers have been victimized at Fenway Park in their rookie seasons. With its short dimensions down the right-field line, the imposing Green Monster in left and one of baseball's most potent lineups calling this place home, Fenway can be frightening for even a veteran pitcher.

But if Lopez has proven anything in his first full season in the majors, it is that he is no ordinary rookie. Anyone who still doesn't realize that need only look at his performances against the Red Sox.

The 26-year-old right-hander has made four appearances against Boston. He tossed four shutout innings of relief April7 in Baltimore, then moved into the rotation on April 24 and beat the Red Sox at Camden Yards. Five days later, he made his Fenway debut, holding the home team to four hits in 5⅔ innings while earning his third win of the season.

If that weren't enough, Lopez has inched ever closer to assuming the status of the Orioles' ace, having now gone 5-0 with a 2.11 ERA following a Baltimore loss.

"We need to get a lot better before we have any aces," cautioned manager Mike Hargrove, whose team improved to 48-51. "If he continues to do this, sure, I think you can [call him that], but it's going to take more than four months of it."

Lopez came storming out of the gate last night, striking out four of the first six batters, including Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek and Shea Hillenbrand in the second inning. He got into a bit of trouble in the fourth in allowing two runs to score, though Tony Batista's error (he had the ball kicked out of his glove by Nomar Garciaparra) made only one of them earned.

If the sellout crowd of 33,840 expected Lopez to fold after that, it was mistaken. The former Culiacan Tomato Grower only got stronger, not allowing another hit after the fourth inning. He struck out four of six batters in the sixth and seventh. And by the time he gave way to closer Jorge Julio for the ninth, Lopez had improved to 3-0 with a 1.96 ERA in four appearances against the Red Sox.

"He's got our number so far," Boston manager Grady Little said. "The kid knows how to pitch. Being in his first year in the major leagues, and doing the job that he is doing especially against those Red Sox is admirable."

What little pressure Lopez may have felt last night was certainly eased when the Orioles put up five runs against beleaguered Boston right-hander Rolando Arrojo in the third inning. Six straight batters reached base to open the inning, aided in part by Arrojo's ill-advised decision to throw to third on Jerry Hairston's sacrifice bunt.

Back-to-back doubles by Melvin Mora and rookie Howie Clark made it 4-0, and an RBI single by Gary Matthews Jr. capped the five-run inning and left a chorus of boos raining upon Arrojo (4-3), who never made it to the fourth inning.

Batista's 21st homer - a 395-foot shot that cleared the netting above the mammoth left-field fence - brought out more boos from the crowd, as did Clark's RBI single in the eighth.

In nine major league games, Clark is batting .378. He's hit safely in eight of those nine games and has reached base in all of them.

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