- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2004

BALTIMORE — Rodrigo Lopez appears to be giving the Baltimore Orioles at least one answer to the uncertainty in their starting rotation.

The right-hander turned in his second straight effective outing, pitching 61/3 solid innings to lead the Orioles past the Tampa Bay Devil Rays 5-4 yesterday. The victory enabled Baltimore to salvage a split of the teams’ rain-shortened two-game series before 46,044 at Camden Yards.

Baltimore snapped a four-game skid, winning for the first time since Lopez’s Memorial Day start against Boston.

“I know what I can do as a starter, and that’s where I’d like to be,” Lopez said. “I’m going to work every day and try to be a better starter. If it happens, it happens.”

Closer Jorge Julio wiggled in and out of trouble, allowing a run in the ninth before stranding Robert Fick at third base and securing his ninth save.

Lopez (5-2) started the year in the bullpen and was one of the American League’s best relievers for the first six weeks of the season. Yet with the struggles of the since-demoted Kurt Ainsworth and Matt Riley, manager Lee Mazzilli opted to sacrifice his bullpen luxury by moving Lopez to the rotation.

His first two starts were shaky, but Lopez has since shown signs of returning to the form he used to win 15 games as a rookie in 2002. After defeating Boston for his first victory as a starter, Lopez was able to control one of his favorite punching bags — the Devil Rays.

Lopez struggled early yesterday, including a first-pitch slider to open the third that Rocco Baldelli deposited in the left-field seats to help Tampa Bay seize an early 3-1 lead.

Yet Lopez, who went 4-0 against the Devil Rays in 2002 and has a 3.20 career ERA against Tampa Bay, permitted only one runner to enter scoring position in his final 31/3 innings. For the game, he scattered 10 hits and struck out two.

“It seems like every start he has is going deeper and deeper into the game,” Mazzilli said of his starter, who threw 66 of his 96 pitches for strikes. “When you’re a starter, it’s how you pace yourself during the game.”

The Orioles backed up Lopez with a mid-game rally against Tampa Bay starter Rob Bell (1-3). Trailing 3-1, Rafael Palmeiro singled to lead off the fourth, moved to third on Javy Lopez’s double, then scored on a groundout. Luis Matos beat out shortstop Julio Lugo’s throw for an infield single and, after Larry Bigbie’s sacrifice fly and Jerry Hairston Jr.’s walk, scored on Brian Roberts’ ground-rule double.

Bell, who has yo-yoed between Class AAA and the majors for the last five seasons, continued to struggle in the fifth. With two outs he surrendered three straight singles, the final one a Matos hit that permitted Lopez to slide under catcher Toby Hall’s tag. Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella raced out of the dugout to argue the call and eventually meandered his way to the mound to yank Bell.

The Orioles pounded out 11 hits, including 10 in the first five innings, as they continued their hot hitting. The recent eruption has been welcome, though it could be tempered by left-hander Randy Johnson’s arrival at Camden Yards. Johnson, a five-time Cy Young Award winner, and Arizona begin a three-game series with the Orioles tomorrow as a two-week stretch of interleague play commences.

Notes — The Orioles won their first game at home since May16. They had lost four straight at Camden Yards. … Roberts stole his 19th base of the year in the sixth inning. He ranks second in the AL behind the Devil Rays’ Carl Crawford (24). … Tampa Bay’s Aubrey Huff extended his hitting streak to 14 games with a first-inning single. … Devil Rays designated hitter Fred McGriff went 0-for-3 and is now 3-for-16 (.188) since his return to the majors May28.



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