It’s always strange for Jorge López, to leave the clubhouse and climb the dugout steps into the field before the seventh inning, then cross the outfield to the bullpen. In a past life, López would have been there already. He may have already taken the mound in relief from a starter.
That has changed for the Orioles right-hander, however, and it still surprises López as he sits in the clubhouse watching a game unfold so close – an inactive participant until later when Baltimore could appeal. to him for a backup situation.
As López, 29, adjusts to the closing role — the one he’s careful to emphasize is temporary, performance-based — he’s taken longer to get to grips with how to pass the time by himself- as well as how to handle the spotlight that comes from protecting a small lead in crucial moments of the game.
“So weird,” López said. “Because I was a guy where I used to carry the bags [to the bullpen], to be a guy where now I’m going in the seventh inning. It’s a bit tricky.
But López is also proud of the accolade. He knows he’s earned the closest role with his performances so far. Entering Tuesday, López held a 0.75 ERA with 13 saves in 36 innings. That makes the reliever – who signed through 2022 – a potential trade deadline target for suitors. But in the meantime, those performances led manager Brandon Hyde to sideline López to discuss the pitcher’s new routine and special circumstances.
The best closers in the game have a particular routine. They may arrive later than most. They do individual work, whether mental or physical, as the game progresses. And once they’re ready, they head to the bullpen, waiting for a call if there’s a high-stress scenario.
This is where López, who started 25 games for Baltimore last season, suddenly finds himself. And although he initially rebuffed Hyde’s suggestion slightly, López feels more comfortable with the modified routine.
“I want him to feel like a late-inning guy,” Hyde said. “He said something to me about, ‘Hey, I could go to fifth grade.’ I was like, ‘You don’t have to go over there in the fifth. I’m not using you.’
López therefore arrives in the bullpen in the seventh inning, although Hyde admitted he probably won’t use it either – the first López to enter a game this season is the eighth.
Last season, López pitched 121 2/3 innings and featured more often as a starter than a reliever. His ERA climbed to 6.07 and his fastball averaged 95 mph. Now López still provides length, regularly making four-out or five-out saves. But his fastball speed has increased to 98 mph in his new role, and López throws his sinker far more frequently than his four seams this season, which has led to an increase in ground ball outs.
During López’s new routine, he arrives at the clubhouse later than some of his teammates. He’s going through warm-ups with the rest of the relievers, but he could take a shower early in the game. Then he works on relaxation.
“It’s going to sound crazy, but just try not to worry about it,” López said. “I care so much, because I know baseball is hard enough, and I prepare so much.”
So once the game starts, its preparation kind of stops. He pulls away, watches the game, and relaxes until it’s time to appear.
He realizes that’s a privilege most relievers don’t have, and it’s based on his success so far this season. Hyde wouldn’t have encouraged López to enjoy the privileges that come with being the closest if he didn’t have a WHIP of 0.81.
There’s still a part of him that feels guilty for not being with his teammates on the first pitch. But they understand and as their career develops, they could find themselves in López’s shoes.
“I wish the guys could come with me and not be the only ones left, but some guys have to be ahead,” López said. “They see me doing this now, they will do it later, for sure. Because they will have their chance.
Just like López did, even when he didn’t expect it.
Wednesday, 4:10 p.m.
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