- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2003

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Throughout a surprisingly successful 2002 season, Rodrigo Lopez seemed to answer the question of "who is this guy and how long is he going to keep this up?" with victory after victory, becoming one of the few successes of an otherwise forgettable season for the Baltimore Orioles.
Sudden prosperity often brings more questions, and that is the case for Lopez, runner-up to Toronto's Eric Hinske for 2002 American League Rookie of the Year honors. He enters his second season facing one pressing query: Was last year for real, or merely fool's gold?
"It's going to be hard to do it again, but if I did it once, I can do it again," said Lopez, who went 15-9 with a 3.57 ERA. "I have to work probably harder than I did last year, and it's going to be my new challenge."
Those around the Orioles believe Lopez won't resemble Jose Mercedes, who went 14-7 for Baltimore in 2000 before stumbling to 8-17 in 2001. Baltimore's new ace admits life has changed quite a bit for him over the last year but says he's trying to approach this season the same way he did last spring when he was merely fighting for a roster spot.
"I've been hearing a couple people say it was luck, but I don't care about it," Lopez said. "I think if you want to be better, you have to listen to yourself."
Before last season, Lopez, 27, continually had to prove his worth just to get a chance at making a big-league club. After spending seven years and all but six starts in 2000 in San Diego's minor league system, the Padres released him because they believed he was having arm trouble. Lopez returned to his native Mexico to play winter ball, unsure of his future and aware that he might not make it back to the major leagues.
The Orioles signed him to a minor league contract in late November 2001 with an invitation to spring training. Lopez, who had pitched his team to a Caribbean Series victory in Winter League ball, made the Orioles' roster, but going into Opening Day, he was in the bullpen. It wasn't until Josh Towers pitched his way out of the rotation that Lopez got his opportunity to start.
Lopez found success by throwing three pitches fastball, slider, changeup very effectively, aided by some great late-breaking action. He also found that his improvement came courtesy of a better mental approach; he didn't doubt his stuff and bred confidence with every victory.
"We signed him to give us insurance at [Class AAA]," manager Mike Hargrove said during last season. "We gave him the ball in spring training, and he's been lights out ever since."
At least until late in the season. No doubt feeling the effects of pitching more than 150 innings following a winter season, Lopez went 1-4 with a 5.50 ERA in his last six starts to dampen a 14-5 showing through the first five months. Then again, he certainly didn't get any help from the Orioles' woeful offense during their late-season 4-32 swoon.
Yet Lopez's 15 wins were the most by an Orioles rookie since Mike Boddicker in 1983. For the first time in five years, he didn't play winter ball in Mexico, taking some time to relax and, unintentionally, get noticed.
Lopez got calls from friends he hadn't heard from since high school, and the owners of the baseball club in Culiacan solicited his opinion about the team. He was invited onto the set of a couple television shows in Mexico City as well.
"It's really changed the way people look at me and treat me down in Mexico," Lopez said.
It's changed his status for the Orioles as well. Now he's being looked upon to be an anchor of the rotation, to come close to matching a 2002 season that seemingly came out of nowhere.
"He was pretty consistent all year every time he pitched, he was in the ballgame," Hargrove said. "And usually with a guy that makes you a little unsure of what's next, he can be a little hot and cold, a little streaky. And Rodrigo wasn't that last year. I mean you never know, but everything that we saw indicates that what we saw last year is [legitimate]."
Notes
The Orioles resolved the final one of their five arbitration cases by agreeing to a one-year, $1.75 million contract with utility man Melvin Mora. Mora had requested $2million and the Orioles had offered $1.425million.

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