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Lopez pitches like ace at last

Rays starter ends his major-league high 10-game skid with a 4-3 win over the Marlins.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 8, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- As far as celebrations go, it wasn't much. You might say Albie Lopez was more relieved than anything when his 10-game losing streak finally came to an end Saturday evening.

Lopez was attending to, um, other matters in the bathroom inside the Rays clubhouse during the tense ninth inning, and it was only when he heard the clubhouse staff hollering that he knew the Rays had sealed the 4-3 victory over Florida, giving him his first win in 2 1/2 months.

"The streak must have been a big deal, huh?" Lopez said, surveying a pack of reporters at his locker. "I knew about it, but it didn't bother me. Didn't bother me at all. For a while, I was like, 'What am I going to do about it?' But I can't go out there and say, 'I need this win,' so I didn't let it bother me. I had to go out and do my job for six or seven innings and keep my team in the game."

photo
[AP photo]
Albie Lopez pitches against the Florida Marlins during the first inning Saturday.
Saturday, Lopez did exactly that. He made use of his offense, which consisted of Jason Tyner getting on base and Fred McGriff driving him in three straight times, plus an opposite-field homer from Randy Winn. He survived some shaky defense that led to two of the three Florida runs. He made it through the pivotal seventh, then let Doug Creek and Travis Phelps do the rest. And, for the first time since April 24, he won, ending the longest losing streak in the majors this season and the longest in one American League season since 1996.

"I knew something had to give," Lopez said.

The win gave the Rays their fourth series of the season and back-to-back victories for the seventh time. They'll try today for their second sweep and second three-game winning streak.

"Things are looking up," manager Hal McRae said. "Lopie won a ballgame, and he hadn't won a game in quite a while. And we made mistakes in the field, and we were able to recover and win the ballgame, and those are things that didn't happen in the past.

"When we didn't play well in the field, generally we lost the ballgame. Today we were able to overcome our mistakes and win a game, and that's a positive sign, because that's the way it has to be done. ...

"This probably is the best win we've had in a while, simply because we played the way a good team plays. All teams make mistakes, but it doesn't mean if someone makes an error, if there's a bad pitch or a bad play, that you automatically lose the ballgame, and that's the way we had gone about it. So today was a real good day."

It didn't start that way, not with an error by Brent Abernathy on the game's first play, and not with Luis Castillo coming around to score when a popup dropped between Abernathy, Winn and rightfielder Steve Cox.

But Tyner's bunt single, the first of his four hits, started the Rays on the way back, and they took a 4-2 lead into the seventh.

This time, the trouble was a Derrek Lee fly to deep right-center that bounced off Cox's glove. Lee was credited with a triple and scored on a groundout, and Lopez's chances for victory seemed to be slipping when Alex Gonzalez slapped a two-out single. But Lopez got a ground ball to get out of the inning.

That was important, because it allowed McRae to use Creek first, so he could face left-handed slugger Cliff Floyd, then Phelps to finish the job. Phelps made it interesting when he allowed the first two Marlins to reach in the ninth, but he closed it out for his fourth save.

Lopez, 3-1 with a league-leading 1.66 ERA after the April 24 win and now 4-11 with a 5.61 ERA, said the mounting losses embarrassed him more than the actual streak. To balance that, he forced himself to focus on each game rather than the totality of the season.

"The streak was never a factor," catcher John Flaherty said. "The reason he was losing games was that he was not pitching well."

Lopez seemed sharper in his past three outings, a combination of throwing better and feeling better, the strained groin and bruised thumb that forced him from mid-May games finally healed.

As a result, he's able to use his curveball, which allows him to mix his pitches more, which makes his fastball all the more effective.

In other words, he's pitching like he used to pitch.

"I've shown what I can do last year and the first month this year," Lopez said. "I hurt myself. Now that I'm healthy again, hopefully things will turn around."

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