Lopez trying to make most of strong winter


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Rodrigo Lopez began last season by missing the first two months with a shoulder injury. By the winter, he was dominating hitters in Mexico.

Nice recovery.

Lopez is trying to crack the Orioles' rotation after signing as a minor-league free agent. His credentials are modest - six starts with the San Diego Padres in 2000 - but he looked much more qualified while leading the Culiacan Tomateros to victory in the Caribbean World Series.

Lopez won all five decisions in the playoffs, including a four-hit shutout over Puerto Rico to clinch the championship.

"In my career, that's one of my best performances," said Lopez, who was 10-2 in the regular season.

It came just in time for Lopez, who got a late start with the Padres' Single-A Lake Elsinore team because of an inflamed rotator cuff. He was promoted to Triple-A Portland on July 15 and went 2-2 with a 3.44 ERA in 11 games.

"I worked hard to come back," he said.

The Orioles contacted Lopez before his postseason heroics, signing him in late November. Lopez, who went 0-3 with an 8.76 ERA with the Padres, said the Orioles were the first club to offer him a contract.

"I see a lot of opportunities here. That's one of the reasons I'm here," he said.

Lopez will need to lengthen his stride to catch up in the race for the fifth starter's job. Calvin Maduro, Sean Douglass and Rick Bauer were in the rotation by the end of last season and rate the edge over Lopez, though he could emerge as this spring's surprise.

Comparisons already have been made to Jose Mercedes and Willis Roberts, minor-league free agents the past two seasons who took turns forcing their way onto the 25-man roster. Including Lopez in the rotation would allow the Orioles to give Douglass and Bauer more time at Triple-A Rochester while Maduro could fill a long and middle relief role.

"I think that I've got a chance, but it doesn't matter if I do it in the rotation or the bullpen," he said. "One of my goals is to come back to the big leagues, and I'll give my best effort to make the team and show them what I've got."

They got a pretty good idea this winter.

Towers struck on foot

Josh Towers may have to scale back on his running for a few days after taking a sharp grounder off his left foot during yesterday's intrasquad game.

Towers was nailed on the inside half of his heel by Howie Clark, but retrieved the ball and completed the second inning. Third baseman Jose Leon and catcher Geronimo Gil checked on Towers, who was walking with a slight limp.

"They asked if I was OK and I said, 'No.' It hurt," he said with a grin.

Towers was the only pitcher to go two innings in a game that featured a three-run homer by Jay Gibbons off minor-league pitcher Travis Driskill.

Gibbons appeared in 73 games last year before breaking the hamate bone in his right hand. He was shut down while playing in the Dominican Winter League because of recurring pain and weakness, but has looked good in camp.

"He's really swinging the bat well. He doesn't have any soreness," manager Mike Hargrove said.

Another run scored when Tony Batista and Marty Cordova singled before executing a double steal. Center fielder Luis Matos singled and threw out Clark trying to go from first to third.

Young prospects Erik Bedard and Steve Bechler each threw a perfect inning. Nine of Lee Marshall's 11 pitches were strikes.

Maduro and Scott Erickson are scheduled to throw two innings today in the final intrasquad game before tomorrow night's exhibition opener against the Montreal Expos at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

Around the horn

The Orioles signed 10 players to contracts for 2002: Melvin Mora, Bauer, Bedard, Bechler, Fernando Lunar, Mike Paradis, Tim Raines Jr., Matt Riley, Luis Rivera and John Stephens. They have signed 23 of their players on the 40-man roster.

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