ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — In the wake of the trade that cost him two of his high-leverage relievers, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde was not shy about his intentions with right-hander Jorge López.
“You’re gonna see Jorge López pitch in big spots,” Hyde said earlier this week after Baltimore dealt Tanner Scott and Cole Sulser to the Miami Marlins.
It did not take Hyde long to show he meant that statement, calling on López to face the heart of the Tampa Bay Rays’ order in the eighth inning of Friday’s season-opening 2-1 loss. Although López allowed the go-ahead run to score, he showed why Hyde trusted him in that spot. The average velocity on each of his three pitches Friday was about 3 mph above his marks in 2021, a season spent mostly as a struggling starter. His sinker averaged 98.5 mph and got up to 99.3 mph, according to Baseball Savant.
“His fastball velocity has really jumped, and so now he’s sitting 98, 99,” Hyde said afterward. “He’s now a weapon against right-handed and left-handed hitters. He’s always had a starter mix, obviously, but now the velo is really ticked up, the changeup’s gotten better, the breaking ball you saw got better, and the confidence is there.
“Lopie’s going to be pitching in the big part of games.”
Hyde doesn’t have many other options for that type of role, with Dillon Tate and Paul Fry the only other pitchers in his bullpen with at least two years of major league service time. But López’s stuff is dynamic, and as Hyde noted, his confidence has also improved with the change in role.
“I like the challenge,” López said. “I feel like it’s a big opportunity, just to be here already and have another opportunity, another opening day.
“That opportunity, even with what happened last year, it’s completely what I wanted. I just want to keep going and get better.”
Acquired on waivers from the Kansas City Royals in 2020, López, 29, spent much of last year in Baltimore’s rotation, frequently running into difficulties in the middle innings. He showed potential late in the season as a reliever, only for a sprained right ankle to spoil the showcase after eight outings as he ended the year with a 6.07 ERA.
Baltimore Orioles Insider
Now, he might be Hyde’s go-to reliever in the biggest spot of games whenever they come. Friday, that was with a runner on first and no outs in the eighth. López issued an eight-pitch walk to Ji-Man Choi before Randy Arozarena raced to first to beat out an infield single that loaded the bases; the ball had an exit velocity of 49.9 mph and an expected batting average of .230, according to Baseball Savant. With the bases loaded, López got a grounder from Brandon Lowe (Maryland) for a fielder’s choice at home, but Francisco Mejía was able to get a changeup airborne for a game-winning sacrifice fly. Another walk followed to reload the bases, though Fry left them that way to keep López’s ERA clean.
Early in spring training, Hyde said the Orioles were considering stretching López out to once again serve as a length option, but the possibility of him in short relief proved too intriguing not to give an extended look. Thrust into the backend of Baltimore’s bullpen, López is already looking forward to the chance to improve on Friday’s performance.
It matches how Hyde described his attitude after last year’s switch to relief, with López coming into his office each day saying he was available to pitch that night.
“It’s good to have the opportunity,” López said. “I never had that before, and it’s good to jump in and have that kind of opportunity to just keep going with my mentality of attacking the hitters, just try to keep the game close, and that’s my job. Everything else, I can’t control. I just can control what I can control, and my next step is just keep going forward.”
The Orioles’ hope is that more pitchers challenge López for those opportunities. Before Tate allowed a leadoff single in the eighth and gave way to López, he, Bryan Baker and Cionel Pérez combined to retire nine straight Rays. Baker and Pérez, like López, were waiver claims, and both were making their team debuts.
“I told them, all you guys are going to be in big spots, different leverage spots, just because I need to find out who can do what and what part of the game that they’re most comfortable in,” Hyde said. “Really happy with how Baker threw the ball. Cionel Pérez was outstanding. We’re really encouraged by that. I thought Tate was really good in the seventh, and Lopie had good stuff in the eighth.
“These guys are going to continue to get opportunity.”