Bad ankle, bad pitch ... no big deal for Braves' Lopez
Updated: Thursday October 18, 2001 6:07 AM
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
PHOENIX -- Javy Lopez wasn't even supposed to be standing here on Wednesday night. With that bum ankle of his, he sure as heck wasn't supposed to be squatting behind the plate, starting for the Atlanta Braves in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series.
With that touchy left ankle, Lopez had absolutely no business trying to turn this series back from the brink of disaster.
But there he was, leaning out over the plate Wednesday, swinging at a seventh-inning pitch that he probably shouldn't have even thought about swinging at. And there he was rounding first base after a decisive, ice-breaking two-run home run, pumping his fist ever-so slightly, giving the Braves a win they sorely needed as the series rolls toward Atlanta.
Looking for an early series turnaround moment? You don't have to look any further than Lopez's first-pitch wallop in an 8-1 Braves' victory that tied this NLCS at one game apiece.
"After that," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said, "you could hear everybody kind of exhale."
Up until Lopez stepped to the plate with two outs in the top of the seventh at Bank One Ballpark, Arizona Diamondbacks starter Miguel Batista had absolutely flummoxed the Braves. After his first-pitch gopher ball to Braves second baseman Marcus Giles landed in the left-field stands, anyway.
Up to the point that Lopez stepped to the plate -- limp-free, even on a taped and braced ankle that was so badly sprained at the end of the season that doctors gave him only a 50-50 chance of being ready for the World Series -- Batista was miraculous. After Giles' leadoff homer, Batista faced 23 batters. He walked two. One reached on an error. That was it.
But then came Lopez. And then came the fateful pitch from Batista.
It could have been six inches off the plate. Easy.
"It was outside," Lopez said laughing. "It was waaay outside."
Still, it says a lot about Lopez, a right-handed swinger, that he was able to take the pitch and line it 356 feet down the right-field line, bouncing it off the fair pole for a two-run homer that put the Braves up 3-1.
Whewwwww. Braves fans now can breathe, thanks to Lopez.
For a right-hander, smacking a ball down the right-field line -- especially an outside pitch like the one Batista served up -- takes a great deal of timing and strength. The ball automatically slices off the bat on a swing like that.
But Lopez hit it hard enough that it didn't really start slicing until the pole in right stopped it from slicing altogether.
"I don't think anyone would consider Javy an opposite-field hitter," Jones said. "[To hit that ball out], first and foremost, you have to be extremely strong. I can honestly say I've done that one time. And the wind was blowing out."
Lopez was at a loss to explain how he hit a pitch so far outside so hard and kept it fair.
"I knew I hit it good. I thought it was going to be a line drive over the first baseman. And then I looked up and saw it was [high] in the air," Lopez said. "Sometimes, getting something down the middle, you can't hit it as hard as you can if it's outside."
Whatever, the homer gave the Braves the lead and forced Arizona manager Bob Brenly to pinch-hit for Batista the next inning. In effect, it won the game for Atlanta.
Turnaround? You bet. Without Lopez's homer, the Braves may not have been able to get to the shaky Arizona bullpen soon enough. Without Lopez, this series might be sitting at 2-0 Diamondbacks, with ace Curt Schilling going for them Friday in Atlanta.
In a mass media swarm after the game, someone asked Lopez if this was his biggest postseason home run. Wednesday's was his eighth, his fifth during the NLCS.
"Today is the most exciting, the one tonight," he said. "Because the past is already in the past. I'm living today."
Because of his homer, so are the Braves.