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López Begins His Climb From Last Year's Depths

Felipe Lopez
"I just want to put last year behind me, and I already did," Felipe Lopez said. (Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)

"It was a difficult part of my life," López said Tuesday. "I'm not going to lie: It was tough. But I never brought that situation onto the field. That was something that I can always block [out], because he wasn't important to me."

Suddenly, though, López said he found himself as the man in the family, the one to whom everyone turned. He bought a house for an aunt and uncle who had been particularly helpful during his turbulent childhood. He didn't stop there.

"I bought houses for everybody," he said. He met his future wife in 1999, while playing Class A ball in Hagerstown, Md. By the following year, $2 million had been whittled to $20,000.

"People would say, 'She just married you because of your money,' " L¿pez said. "But they don't know. We went through some tough times. At one point, we didn't have nothing."

Now, López is nearly 10 years removed from the day he was drafted, has spent more than five years in the majors and will earn $4.9 million this season. "I'm saving a lot more, that's for sure," he said. In the fall, he will be a free agent, and how he performs for the Nationals will help determine how much he earns on the open market.

By his own admission, though, López's earning potential will drop drastically if he handles this season as he did last. He has admitted to battling off-field problems in 2007. He declined to address them specifically Tuesday, other than to say that they weren't related to his father or his immediate family, his wife, Jennifer, and his two daughters, 6-year-old Chaydin and 3-year-old Jaysha.

Whatever the issues, López said they chipped away at him in 2007. The man who said he separated his abusive father from his baseball career couldn't separate on- and off-the-field problems any longer. He slumped badly, hitting .182 in June, and never recovered. His body language was poor. Frequently, he sulked in the clubhouse, and even when his mood improved, he wasn't engaged in baseball. Members of the organization wondered if they would ever reach him.

"I always got to the field early before" last year, López said. "I was always working. Last year, I felt like I didn't take advantage of it. I didn't work. There's no excuses. If you don't work, it's going to show. If you work, you're going to be luckier more times."

So this offseason, he worked. Larkin, who tutored López in the waning days of his own career in Cincinnati, owns a baseball facility in Orlando. López worked out there regularly. During a quiet moment by the batting cage Tuesday, Larkin leaned over and reminded López of all that labor -- and what it could mean.

"He worked his tail off," Larkin said. "The days that he said he would be there, he was there. He didn't skip. He came early. He did some stuff on his own in his garage. From what I saw, he did everything he could to make himself better."

The Nationals hope that attitude holds through spring training and into the season. So far, they are pleased.

"He's ready to compete and ready to face whatever comes his way," Acta said. "And there's never been a doubt about his talent."

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