Baltimore Orioles AL 

Lopez looks like old self in O's win

Now that's how an Opening Day starter is supposed to pitch. Baltimore's Rodrigo Lopez finally returned to form Thursday after a perplexing stretch that saw him allow at least four earned runs in each of his first 10 starts. Lopez pitched into the eighth inning and allowed just two hits -- retiring 18 straight batters at one point -- in a 2-0 win over Seattle.
"I've needed this game a long time," Lopez said. "I was happy that today things worked out much better for me. I am smiling after a game, finally. Hopefully, this is the beginning of getting back on track."

That effort spelled the first win for Lopez (2-7) since the first day of the season, and it also helped lower his ERA by nearly a full run (from 8.07 to 7.16). Lopez was in control of the game the whole way, and he scattered Seattle's only two hits. Raul Ibanez hit safely in the first inning, and Richie Sexson singled in the seventh. In between, Lopez was perfect.

"He's been battling and battling, and things haven't been going his way at all," said Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo. "Not only did he get a win, he was outstanding. He really was. He was ahead of everybody all night, made them hit his pitch. I can't say much more about him. It was great for him and great for the ballclub."

"When you can win scoring two runs, all the credit goes to the pitcher," said second baseman Brian Roberts, who scored both of those runs. "Rodrigo has been our best pitcher for three years. It's a funny game. You are going to have your struggles at times -- I don't care who you are.

"He's been battling, working his tail off trying to get better, trying to turn things around. For him to come out here and get that done, I think it was great for him. It was great for our team. Hopefully, it will get us rolling a little."

Why all the superlatives? Four earned runs has been the baseline for Lopez this season, and he'd allowed six runs or more in half of his first 10 starts. He'd allowed the most earned runs (52) of any American League pitcher and the second-highest hit total (79). His ERA had been the league's second-highest, and he was 0-4 with a 10.29 ERA in the month of May.

All of that came from a pitcher who had won at least 14 games in three of his four full seasons, and one who had pitched on Opening Day three times. Historically speaking, Lopez had been the most consistent pitcher on the current staff, and his struggles were a mystery to everyone involved.

"I'm sure anybody that's struggling is trying to do a little extra that they shouldn't be doing," Perlozzo said. "I would've loved to see him go out there and get a six- or seven-run lead, let him relax and pitch. But the fact that he knew that he was in the ballgame -- that it was still a two-run game -- and still pitch the way he did, I thought that was a big plus."

"It's just like guys who are career .290 hitters," said Roberts. "Even if they're hitting .220 at the end of May, you know they are going to end up pretty close to where they normally do. Obviously, he's going to have a battle to get back to where he's been the last couple of years. "But if he just pitches well the rest of the way, you forget about the first part. That's usually what happens. Guys that have a track record tend to figure it out."

Now, the Orioles (22-26) need Lopez to repeat the feat next time -- and the time after that. The offensive support came from Roberts, who was playing just his second game since a 25-day stay on the disabled list. The second baseman doubled twice and scored twice -- once on a double by Miguel Tejada and once on a single from Jay Gibbons.

"That's what you hope you can do when you come back," Roberts said. "You never know exactly what is going to happen, but you don't have that chance if you're not out there. I think I can help."

Gibbons was playing with a heavy heart, starting his first game since his mother passed away on Tuesday. The right fielder went 1-for-3 with a key hit, but he declined to talk about his personal situation after the game.

"It just feels good to get some sort of normalcy back. That's all I really want to say about that," Gibbons said. "But it was a good win and Rodrigo pitched great. It's good to get out of here, and we'll see what we can do this weekend."

"There's a guy that's had a lot on his mind," Perlozzo said. "No matter what he did offensively, the fact that he went in the lineup was something special. And the fact that he could come through and get us a big base hit was something more.

"We certainly are still feeling his pain, [but] the fact that he could go out there and alleviate some of it and help you win is pretty special."

Seattle starter Gil Meche (4-3) worked seven innings and allowed four hits, striking out 10 batters -- a season-high for his team. The Mariners (22-27) wound up with a series split and got their best chance in the eighth inning. Lopez got one out and walked a batter, then Chris Ray retired five straight hitters for his 12th save in 12 tries.

Perlozzo doesn't like to use Ray for more than one inning, but he did what he had to do to get the win.

"Sometimes, you get to a certain point where you've got a pitcher out there that you just feel like you've got to get the guy a win -- somehow," he said. "If you don't, you're going to do it with your best. ... I just thought he was the right guy, and I could walk away knowing we gave it our best shot with our best guy. Fortunately, he was up to the occasion."

Nine Orioles Headed To Spring World Tourney

DALLAS -- Baltimore could well be the source of some international intrigue this spring, when nine Orioles are eligible to participate in the World Baseball Classic. None of Baltimore's players were listed as part of the United States' roster -- instead, the nine O's were split between seven countries.
The most prominent players came from two Latin American nations that stand among the tournament's favorites. The Dominican Republic should have former American League MVP Miguel Tejada, Baltimore's shortstop, while Melvin Mora, the team's third baseman, will likely suit up for Venezuela. Tejada and Mora were both All-Stars last season, combining for 53 homers and 186 RBIs.

It doesn't end there. The Orioles have a veritable United Nations serving as their starting rotation. Daniel Cabrera may pitch for the Dominican Republic, but three other Orioles are near locks to pitch for their homeland. Bruce Chen is on the list for Panama, Rodrigo Lopez for Mexico and Erik Bedard for Canada. Last year, those four combined to post a 44-43 record.

"In some ways, it paints an interesting picture. What if Mexico plays Panama?" said Mike Flanagan, the O's executive vice president of baseball operations. "I don't know if that can happen. I haven't looked at it that closely."

All the players on the lists have been approved by both Major League Baseball and the Players Association, and all the players mentioned have accepted the invitation to play. Still, the selection process is ongoing.

Sixty-man rosters must be submitted by Jan. 17, with the ultimate 30-man rosters finalized 24 hours prior to the start of the tournament. The final rosters must include a minimum of 13 pitchers and three catchers. MLB has committed to using 60 percent of Major League-affiliated players.

Baltimore has some other interesting names involved. Adam Loewen, the team's first-round draft choice in 2003, is listed as part of Canada's delegation. Luis Matos, the Orioles' center fielder, may patrol the same position for Puerto Rico. Finally, John Stephens may pitch for Australia and former O's Karim Garcia and Luis Garcia may play for Mexico.

The inaugural World Baseball Classic, a 16-team tournament sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), will take place March 3-20 and feature the world's best players competing for their home countries and territories for the first time. Fans will be able to follow all the games live exclusively online at

First-round action will be played at four sites. Pool A, consisting of Japan, Korea, Chinese Taipei and China, will meet at the Tokyo Dome, March 3-5. Pool B, featuring USA, Canada, Mexico and South Africa will play at Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Scottsdale Stadium, Spring Training home of the San Francisco Giants, March 7-10. Pool C is Puerto Rico, Cuba, Panama and the Netherlands, and will play at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, March 7-10. Pool D, featuring the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Australia and Italy will play at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla., March 7-10.

The top two teams from each pool will advance to the second round, which takes place March 12-15 at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Puerto Rico and Angel Stadium in Anaheim. The semifinals and finals will be held at San Diego's PETCO Park, March 18-20.

Tickets go on sale Dec. 10 for games in Puerto Rico and Dec. 12 for games in the United States.

O's Sign ERA Shrinker Catcher

BALTIMORE -- The Orioles finalized their first major move of the offseason Tuesday, announcing the signing of free agent catcher Ramon Hernandez to a four-year contract with an option for a fifth season.
Hernandez comes to the Orioles following an injury-plagued year with the Padres. A sprained wrist that eventually led to two trips to the disabled list and surgery limited him to 99 games with San Diego. But Hernandez hit a career-best .290 with 12 homers and 58 RBIs anyway.

Hernandez likely will take over the everyday catching from Javy Lopez. The Orioles believe Hernandez is a solid catcher who is a good fit to work with their young pitching staff.

"If you look at his record of handling pitching staffs, wherever he goes, the ERA goes down," said executive vice president Mike Flanagan. "And I think for us, when you go about building the club, I think that part of it is you want to look at strength up the middle of the diamond. I think when you look at Ramon behind the plate, when you think of the two All-Stars in the middle of the diamond, you have to be impressed."

Hernandez said he is excited to come to Baltimore and hopes to help the Orioles get back to being a strong club once again.

"I'm going to try to do my best and try to help this ballclub to win games and try to go to the postseason and the World Series," Hernandez said. "I think that's the main goal for everybody."

The question now will be what the Orioles will do with two All-Star catchers. If the Orioles keep Lopez, they've already talked about him playing at first base as well as helping at designated hitter and doing some catching.

The other moves the Orioles make during the offseason could likely determine what happens to Lopez. Reports have swirled that former Oriole Jeff Conine might be close to a deal with the team. If so, he could play at first and/or be a DH with Lopez. The one thing that does seem certain is that Hernandez will be the first-string catcher.

"We didn't really sit down and talk about what was going to be the role," Hernandez said. "But whatever role is supposed to be for me to help this team win, I will do it. I mean, whatever role I have to play to make this team better and win and go to the playoffs and try to get to the World Series, I will be happy to help with that."

Hernandez, who also played with the A's for four-and-a-half years, has a .262 average over 805 games. He has been in the playoffs four of the last five years, batting .455 this past season as the Padres fell to the Cardinals in the National League Division Series. He had played with Oakland in the playoffs in 2001-03.

Hernandez made the American League All-Star team in 2003, when he hit .273 with 21 homers and 78 RBIs. His career catcher's ERA of 3.88 ranks second among all catchers who've caught at least 200 games since 1999. In addition, Hernandez has thrown out 25.1 percent of those attempting to steal against him.

"When we went into the offseason, part of our goal was to help the pitching, to help the defense and eventually help the offense," Flanagan said. "And with the signing of Ramon Hernandez today, we feel like we've helped all three departments."

And Hernandez was glad to help the Orioles in their rebuilding.

"You can see this town loves baseball, and [fans] know about the game," Hernandez said. "I mean, when you go to a town and when you leave your team, you're trying to go to a town where they love the game and know the game. I think this city loves the game. When a player has to pick a team, I think this is one of the best teams a player could [pick]."

O's Tejada & Lopez Future Elsewhere?;Ex-O's Ponson Jailed

So this is what Baltimore professional sports has been reduced to:

Sidney Ponson is in the clink, Kyle Boller is going into analysis and Miguel Tejada is going to drive us all crazy with his waffling on the subject of whether he really wants to play for the Orioles next year.

The Miggy saga continued yesterday at the news conference for new Orioles catcher Ramon Hernandez, who spoke to Tejada over the weekend and insisted they are excited about the prospect of playing together in 2006.

I assume he meant here, but at this point, I'm not taking anything for granted.

"I'm excited. ... He's excited. We played together for five years in Oakland," Hernandez said. "He's excited the same as me. He said, 'You're going to like it. Great teammates. Great organization.' ... He told me he does not want to be traded."

It would be nice to hear that from Tejada firsthand, but even the Orioles have been left to decipher Tejada's intentions from one four-paragraph Associated Press story on Thursday night, one cell phone conversation between Tejada and Comcast SportsNet reporter Kelli Johnson and yesterday's account of a cell phone conversation with Hernandez.

Executive vice president Mike Flanagan continues to express hope that the whole affair blows over. The Orioles consider Tejada the cornerstone of their effort to return to prominence in the American League East, even after he expressed doubt that will happen soon enough to make him a happy camper at Camden Yards.

"I'm certainly hoping that's what happens," Flanagan said yesterday. "He was a targeted player to come in here and be the core to get us back there. That hasn't changed for me."

We can hope it hasn't really changed for Tejada, though he sounded pretty discouraged on Thursday, and his comments to Comcast SportsNet on Sunday included just enough of a mixed message to keep the controversy on the front burner during yesterday's introduction of Hernandez.

Hernandez, by the way, handled the situation deftly, recounting the positive impression he got of Baltimore during his most recent conversation with Tejada and denying rumors that their close relationship had become strained.

"We've never had a problem," Hernandez said. "He called me. We heard those rumors, and we don't know where they come from. We always keep in touch. We're best friends."

He also handled the apparently touchy issue of how his signing will affect Javy Lopez, who is believed to be unhappy with the prospect of being dislodged behind the plate.

"I haven't talked to him," Hernandez said. "I don't know him, but I'm looking forward to talking to him and learning from him. He has been in this league twice as long as I have."

It was just a coincidence that Ponson was sentenced to five days in jail in the middle of the public relations firestorm created by Tejada, but it was almost appropriate.

The Orioles' year of living dangerously really started on Christmas Day 2004, when Ponson was arrested and later charged with assaulting a judge on a beach in Aruba. His subsequent drunken-driving arrests in Florida and Maryland further destabilized an organization that would be rocked by the Rafael Palmeiro scandal in August, rocked again when Tejada's name was publicly linked to it and caught off guard by Tejada's vocal discontent last week.

Everyone knew that Ponson needed to have his head examined, so it's good to hear that he underwent 30 days of alcohol rehabilitation. Now, there's talk that the Ravens will have Boller spend more time with the staff psychologists in the hope that they can find a way to help him get better control of himself on the field.

One question: What took Brian Billick so long to figure that out? The kid has been hyperactive in the pocket from the start.

Billick still isn't ready to give up on Boller as next year's starting quarterback, but I'm guessing that's just what he has to say at this point. There is no way the Ravens can go into next season with that kind of uncertainty, so bet the farm on Boller being the No. 2 in 2006.

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