One afternoon in spring training Omar Daal, a 32-year-old lefthander trying to keep his spot in the Orioles' rotation, took the mound against the Marlins needing a strong outing. If you're not familiar with Daal, he's the one with an overhand motion that appears as if his left wrist hardly bends when he throws, and his ball comes to the plate slightly quicker than a knuckleballer's. If his ball doesn't move, and if his catcher doesn't help confuse the hitters by varying the target, then Daal has an excellent chance to look like the 4-11 slop-ball artist he was in 2003.
On this sun-splashed day in Fort Lauderdale, though, Daal threw his stuff to spots with great success. The catcher, free-agent signee Javy Lopez, moved from low and an inch outside on one pitch to inside and up on the next. For each batter no two targets were alike. Daal threw three shutout innings, allowing two hits and a walk.
"That's what I want to do here," Lopez says. "I know how to handle a game. I know how to handle a staff: Don't rush, keep in control of the game, work the count and make sure the hitter has no clue what pitch is coming or where the location is. That's the only way pitchers can succeed in the big leagues."
After 12 years with the Braves, Lopez begins anew in Baltimore as a vital part of a revamped lineup but also as something of a mystery: Will he be the player who last year hit 43 home runs (a major league record for a catcher) and drove in 109 runs or the one who put up the pedestrian numbers—an average of 16 homers and 63 RBIs per season—over a four-year stretch ending in 2002? Can he guide a weak pitching staff through the powerful batting orders of the AL East or was his reputation enhanced by the stellar staffs he worked with in Atlanta?
If he's at his best offensively and defensively, the Orioles could be even better than expected. Lopez will start the season batting fifth, behind fellow free-agent acquisitions Miguel Tejada and Rafael Palmeiro and ahead of 100-RBI rightfielder Jay Gibbons. Though Lopez's numbers last year were out of character, his chances of duplicating them are bolstered by his playing in a home run haven like Camden Yards. "Why can't he do it again?" asks new manager Lee Mazzilli, the former Yankees coach. "Tell me, what is a 'career year' anyway? There's no reason why a good hitter, which he is, can't keep hitting the way he hit last year. Plus, he doesn't have to hit 30 homers to be just as productive offensively in my eyes."
Lopez said his awful 2002 season (.233, 11 homers, 52 RBIs) was the catalyst for his great '03. "The anger and frustration of that season pushed me to work harder [in the off-season]," says Lopez, "and I felt better physically all last year." That enabled him to break Todd Hundley's 1996 record for homers by a catcher (41), but Lopez isn't obsessed with setting the record a second straight year. "That's not why I'm here," he says. "I'm here to win. I'm here to share the experience of being in the playoffs every year in Atlanta and to help guys learn how to win. If I have to do it offensively or defensively, or both, it doesn't matter to me."
Lopez caught 120 games for Atlanta last year—as always, sitting out the starts by finicky Greg Maddux until the postseason—and served as the DH in three interleague games. The Orioles would like him to catch around 130 games and DH often when he's not behind the plate. "I don't like the DH," Lopez says. "It's boring. I'm going to have to learn how to handle it, to keep my head in the game."
Fact is, you wonder what Lopez, who had 495 plate appearances last year, could do in 550—particularly with extra at bats in Baltimore's park. The left centerfield power alley at Camden Yards is 364 feet, 16 feet shorter than at Atlanta's Turner Field. But he'll prove just as valuable if he can keep a rotation with a miscast ace, Sidney Ponson (58-65 lifetime), and question marks at the four other spots (Eric DuBose, Kurt Ainsworth, Rodrigo Lopez and Matt Riley) afloat. "I want a catcher who controls the game," says Ainsworth, who arrived from San Francisco last year in a trading-deadline deal that sent Ponson, a free agent after last season, west for two months. "I want a catcher I can trust, and he's got my trust because of all the great pitchers he caught in Atlanta. I think he's going to be a great leader for us."
The Orioles' season depends on that.
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