“Before that first pitch, being on the mound, it was a little bit exciting,” Lopez said after the World team finished off an 11-3 victory over the U.S. “Lot of nerves there.”
Lopez, a 22-year-old right-hander, has spent almost his entire professional career as a starter, and the Nationals are grooming him as such. He began this year in Class AA Harrisburg for 14 starts before he was promoted to Class AAA Syracuse in late June. His numbers and performance have been consistent, combining for a 3.19 ERA, with opponents hitting just .234 against him.
Still, the Nationals know such a powerful arm could help them in a pennant race later this summer, and they are monitoring his progress with that in mind. The only major leaguers striking out 11 men per nine innings: Miami’s Jose Fernandez and Nationals teammates Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.
“I think the important thing is first to make it to the big leagues and trying to establish yourself,” Lopez said. “Whether that be as a starter or as a reliever, that’s up to them to determine, but it’s important to just get there and do well for yourself.”
Sunday, though, was Lopez’s first relief appearance since 2012, when he was with the franchise’s entry-level Dominican Summer League team. World team Manager Moises Alou put Lopez into the game with two outs and no one on base in the bottom of the sixth, and he got Colorado prospect David Dahl to ground out after only two pitches, both strikes.
Alou allowed Lopez to remain in the game for the seventh, and he threw a pair of 99-mph fastballs to Astros third base prospect Alex Bregman. Bregman entered the at-bat with three hits in his previous three times at the plate, but after he laid off the two fastballs, Lopez got him to pop up in foul ground on a curveball. He started the next batter, Detroit prospect Christin Stewart, with the only change-up of his 11-pitch outing but missed the strike zone. He followed by popping a 100-mph fastball in for a ball, then got Stewart to fly out to left.
The Nationals believe Lopez has improved at throwing his curveball and change-up for strikes. “I would say it’s like total control,” Lopez himself said of his curveball. They have worked with him to repeat his delivery. Even though he has triple-digit heat, Lopez’s fastball can get flat — and therefore hittable — if his mechanics get out of whack.
Lopez, though, said a more important aspect of his development has had nothing to do with his delivery.
“It really came down to it being more mental,” he said. “Sometimes you get into your head like, ‘Oh, that ball was a little low’ and things like that, and you realize you kind of got to let that go. So I think the things we worked on most was mentally keeping me strong.
“I just had to remind myself that something going on with your body, you can’t let that get to your mind. You can’t let it ruin you mentally.”