- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 8, 2002

BALTIMORE Rodrigo Lopez stood on the pitcher's mound at Camden Yards last night, one out away from his first complete game in the major leagues. Brilliant for eight innings against his favorite boyhood team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Lopez was clearly faltering in the ninth, having lost his potential shutout and given up three hits to the last four batters.
With the Baltimore Orioles still up three runs, Lopez wanted nothing more than to finish the game. The crowd of 33,624 wanted nothing more than for Lopez to finish the game. And Baltimore manager Mike Hargrove wanted nothing more than to let his 26-year-old rookie finish the game.
But as Hargrove said later, "That's when you have to start using your head, not your heart."
So the manager strode to the mound and, amid a chorus of boos, pulled Lopez from the game and turned things over to Jorge Julio. The rookie closer had some trouble, allowing one more run, but ultimately finished off the Dodgers to give the Orioles an impressive 4-2 victory and ensure Lopez's greatest thrill as a major leaguer.
"I wanted it so bad," said Lopez of his first career complete game. "But it's not disappointment. The Orioles got the win, and that's what it's about."
More and more, the Orioles are turning to this former star of the Mexican Winter League for their biggest victories. With last night's standout 8 2/3-inning performance, Lopez improved to 6-1 with a 2.51 ERA. Those aren't the numbers of a six-year minor league free agent. Those are the numbers of a major league ace.
"Incredible this guy can just pitch," said left fielder Melvin Mora, whose first career two-homer game helped make Lopez's victory possible. "He throws the ball and uses his brain. That's pretty good."
Facing the team he grew up rooting for because of star Mexican left-hander Fernando Valenzuela, Lopez had the Dodgers baffled all night in their first game in Baltimore since the 1966 World Series. Showing the poise to throw any pitch in any situation particularly his wicked slider the right-hander was in control all night, allowing three hits (a bloop, an infield grounder and a line drive) through his first eight innings.
In his previous starts, Lopez had shown a tendency to tire around the sixth or seventh. But with his pitch count at a scant 85 and the Orioles holding a 4-0 lead, Lopez took the mound in the ninth to a standing ovation.
He caught leadoff hitter Dave Roberts looking at a 93 mph fastball, as fast as he threw a ball all night, but singles by Paul Lo Duca and Shawn Green brought pitching coach Mark Wiley out for a visit. Lopez got Brian Jordan to fly out for the second out, then watched as Eric Karros lined a base hit up the middle. When center fielder Chris Singleton bobbled the ball, Lo Duca raced home with the Dodgers' first run.
Hargrove came to the mound and motioned to the bullpen.
"You don't want him facing the tying or winning run," the manager explained. "After pitching that well, nobody deserves for that to happen. I know that it was not a popular decision, and I probably would have been run out of town on a rail had it not worked. But it was still the right thing to do, and it paid off."
Julio gave up an RBI single to Dave Hansen that made it 4-2, but struck out Adrian Beltre on a sharp slider of his own to end the game.
"I've got confidence in Julio," Lopez said. "I wasn't scared or thinking something was going to happen."
Dodgers starter Andy Ashby looked like he was equally on his game last night, but the hits he did give up were of far more consequence than Lopez's mistakes. Seven of Baltimore's eight hits went for extra bases.
Mora twice belted pitches from the veteran right-hander over the left-field fence. With two out in the third, he tagged a hanging breaking ball from Ashby (5-5) into the left-field stands. Three innings later, he again connected for his seventh homer of the season.
"I was lucky today, especially with Ashby on the mound," Mora said. "It's kind of hard to crush the ball against him."
An RBI single by Tony Batista in the seventh and Brian Roberts' solo homer in the eighth, his first of the year, gave the Orioles a four-run cushion and cemented Lopez's memorable night.


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