Lopez Continues His Mastery of Red Sox

Rafael Palmeiro both extends the Orioles' lead and moves to within two hits of the 3,000 mark with this solo home run against Boston as Baltimore tops the Red Sox, 4-1, Sunday. (John McDonnell - The Washington Post)
By Jorge Arangure Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 11, 2005

BALTIMORE, July 10 -- Despite what everyone thinks, they are not going anywhere, they say; well, perhaps save for a vacation spot during the next three days where they will enjoy a season once again brimming with optimism.

In the final game for the Baltimore Orioles before the all-star break, a battered ace finally pitched up to his billing, a likely Hall of Famer inched closer to a heralded milestone, and a team ravaged by injuries and mired in inconsistency has suddenly gotten back into the American League East race with a 4-1 win against the Boston Red Sox. The game ended with a resounding thud in the catcher's mitt of Sal Fasano and a flailing swing by Red Sox superstar Manny Ramirez that sent an entire team into celebration.

The Orioles, almost given up for dead after losing two games in New York to start last week, took three of four games against the first-place Red Sox and are once again hopeful of a playoff spot.

"It was gut-check time," Baltimore closer B.J. Ryan said. "We had to come out and play good baseball because they run some pretty good pitchers out there and a good lineup."

The largest crowd in the history of Oriole Park at Camden Yards witnessed the final of three thrilling wins by the Orioles. Each game in the series became more significant, turning the finale on Sunday into the Orioles' most important game of the season.

"Every game is a two-game swing when you're playing them head-to-head," Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli said.

A loss would have put the Orioles four games behind Boston. Instead, Sunday's win now puts them only two games out in a division race that appears wide open.

"I think the message has been sent to the whole league that we're here to stay," first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said. "I think we're good enough to be around all the way through."

It is not the chase for 3,000 hits that has revitalized Palmeiro. It is a quest for a World Series ring that seems to fuel him, as he homered in the sixth inning and now is two hits shy of 3,000. When asked if he would trade the 3,000 hits for a championship, Palmeiro said: "I don't have either of them. I don't know what feels better. Maybe I'll have both after this year."

After Palmeiro's home run in the sixth inning, the crowd at Camden Yards, realizing the first baseman would not reach the 3,000-hit mark at home, cheered for several moments hoping for a curtain call. Palmeiro jumped to the dugout steps and waved to the crowd. Palmeiro said it reminded him of the 1994 season, when Camden Yards fans, accustomed to seeing contending teams and superstar players, often gave ovations.

"It was real nice to see," Mazzilli said. "It's well deserved."

If the Orioles hope for a trip to the postseason, starter Rodrigo Lopez must pitch as well in meaningful games as he did on Sunday. Lopez allowed just one run and three hits in eight innings against the Red Sox. Since 2002, Lopez has beaten Boston 10 times, the most wins by any pitcher against the Red Sox in that time.

"Rodrigo owns Boston for some reason," right fielder Jay Gibbons said. "Every time he pitches against them he pitches well. He looked great today. I looked up and I didn't see him throwing really hard but he was hitting spots really well."

Lopez has no explanation for his success against Boston. He simply says it is one of baseball's oddities.

"It's one of those situations in baseball," Lopez said. "I don't know what it is."

For seven innings, Lopez and Boston starter Tim Wakefield dueled in a game that had every bit of a playoff atmosphere. Fans from both sides cheered loudly. Boston took the lead in the second inning with a home run from Trot Nixon that barely cleared the right field wall. Baltimore tied the game in the fourth inning and then took the lead on a home run to right-center from Gibbons.

"I kind of compare it to slow-pitch softball," Gibbons said of hitting against the knuckleballer Wakefield. "I kind of stay on my back leg a little bit and swing as hard as I can. I've tried everything. I've tried going the other way, being real patient, but nothing works. You just have to go up there and get lucky."

After the game, the Orioles eagerly and happily packed for their three-day respite from baseball. For the moment, though, they savored their series win.

"It's big for our psyche," Gibbons said. "I think we're all going to enjoy this break and relax and enjoy this game a little bit. When we come back, we'll be ready to go."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company