- The Washington Times - Friday, September 20, 2002

BALTIMORE By all accounts, Rodrigo Lopez has had a fine season for the Baltimore Orioles. The mere fact that the 26-year-old rookie right-hander from Mexico came out of nowhere to become the unquestioned ace of the Baltimore pitching staff speaks volumes about Lopez's value to the franchise.

As the 2002 season approaches its final week, though, it is becoming more and more obvious that Lopez will not be named the American League's Rookie of the Year. If there was still any hope among Orioles followers, it likely faded away into the September night at Camden Yards yesterday.

Needing to make a final impression on award voters in his second-to-last appearance of the year, Lopez struggled through his worst effort to date in a 9-3 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays.

"He just really didn't have anything at all tonight," manager Mike Hargrove said of Lopez, who allowed five earned runs and nine hits in 3 ⅓ innings. "It was one of the few times he's done that this year."

Toronto third baseman Eric Hinske, meanwhile, picked up a couple of hits and furthered his cause for what appears to be certain Rookie of the Year honors.

Only 24,162 paid to witness this one at Camden Yards, bringing the total attendance to 85,855 for a four-game series that included the three smallest crowds in the ballpark's 11-year history. Fans, however, do not vote for postseason awards. Members of the Baseball Writers Association of America do, and they have likely seen enough to recognize that Hinske not Lopez deserves their recognition this season.

Two months ago, Lopez was building an airtight case of his own, having just completed a 6-0 July with a sparkling 2.57 ERA. Since that time, though, his numbers have progressively tailed off as the rigors of his first major-league season (coupled with a long winter ball run in Mexico) have taken their toll.

In nine August and September starts, Lopez is 3-5 with a 5.07 ERA. He's still the owner of a solid 15-8 season record and 3.46 ERA, but he has not dominated down the stretch the way he did earlier.

"I think it's a foregone conclusion that he's tired," Hargrove said. "But I don't think that tonight's problems were because of him being out of gas. He just had a bad night tonight."

Despite his recent slide, Lopez had always managed to go at least five innings without giving up any more than five runs since joining the Orioles' rotation in mid-April. That was, until last night.

Done in by a horrendous first inning, in which the Blue Jays' first four batters all reached base, Lopez endured his worst appearance of the year.

First baseman Jeff Conine's dropped foul pop with one out and two runners on didn't help matters, and contributed to an unearned run, but Lopez suffered most of the damage on his own. He gave up four runs in that first inning, needed a double play to get out of a jam in the second and gave up two more runs in the fourth before Hargrove removed him.

"I just feel like I was out of rhythm. I never could find it," Lopez said. "It's just one of those days that can happen during the season."

Hinske wasn't the primary contributor to Toronto's 16-hit explosion leadoff man Shannon Stewart was a career-best 5-for-5 and came within a triple of the cycle but the Blue Jays' young third baseman did display some of the prowess that is likely to earn him Rookie of the Year honors over Lopez.

A .281 hitter with 23 homers, 81 RBI and a .368 on-base percentage, Hinske has become a key cog in Toronto's budding young roster.

Hinske does, however, have a long way to go before anyone compares him defensively with Mike Bordick, who added another record to his name last night. When he departed after the eighth inning to give rookie Ed Rogers some time, the Baltimore shortstop wrapped up his 101st consecutive errorless game, tying Rey Ordonez's major-league record.

Bordick, who has successfully fielded his last 500 chances without committing an error, will attempt to break Ordonez's mark tonight against the Boston Red Sox.

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