The Royals left the door open for pitcher Jorge Lopez when they banished him to the bullpen in May after having been battered and beaten by opposing hitters and toting a bloated ERA after 10 starts.
Though, at the time, it seemed the Royals were being polite than actually holding onto hope Lopez could start games again.
Well, Lopez returned to the rotation last month and has looked much more like a viable option for the Royals rotation. Following a win in Chicago against the White Sox on Thursday, Lopez (4-7) has won his last three decisions and also recorded a save dating back to his start in Baltimore on Aug. 19.
“It’s all about trust, more mentality stuff than anything,” Lopez said after Thursday’s game.
He and pitching coach Cal Eldred simplified his delivery, and he’s now pitching exclusively out of the stretch. He believes his fastball command is better as well as his ability to throw pitches that start as strikes but dart out of the zone before reaching the plate.
“I feel more comfortable right now than I used to,” Lopez said. “I feel like my first 10 starts I wasn’t the guy I am right now. I feel like I’ve been getting stronger with my fastball.”
When Lopez said “stronger” with the fastball, he didn’t mean having gained a few extra miles per hour.
Lopez, a 6-foot-3 right-hander from Puerto Rico, explained that his fastball and curveball have had more life and movement in big situations because he stopped trying to be too “fine” or “perfect” with pitches after getting men on base.
He allowed two earned runs (three total) on eight hits in 5 1/3 innings against the White Sox on Thursday. Afterward, he praised the bullpen for coming in and keeping the White Sox from scoring.
That outing came after he tossed six scoreless innings on four hits, five strikeouts and no walks in a win on the road against the Miami Marlins last Friday.
“He’s got such good stuff,” Royals All-Star Whit Merrifield said. “When he can work ahead and pound the zone and trust his stuff, he’s going to be really good. He’s learning and he’s getting better, and that’s all you can ask.”
Earlier this week, Royals manager Ned Yost spoke fairly bluntly about Lopez’s standing going into the offseason.
“Going into next spring, I’m confident that he’s going to be in contention for a spot,” Yost said. “And it’s going to depend on what he continues to do this winter and how he continues to grow and how he produces coming out of spring training early in the year.
“Even if he continued in the pen at that pace, he probably would still be in contention because you can’t get enough spots for a starting rotation. This just solidifies in my mind that, yes, he can be a starter. He can be a productive starter. He just needs to keep moving forward in his development as a starter.”
Through his first 10 starts (11 games), Lopez posted a 0-6 record with a 6.79 ERA and opponents slugged .535 against him with 13 home runs.
In his past six games (four starts), Lopez has gone 3-0 with a save and a 4.56 ERA, and that includes a rocky relief outing the day after he recorded his first career save in Cleveland.
The day after his save in Cleveland, Lopez was pressed into duty because Brad Keller didn’t make it through two full innings against Oakland. Lopez gave up five runs in 1 2/3 innings in the blowout loss.
Even with that clunker of a relief outing, Lopez has shown signs if progress in the last month.
“I think most of his adjustments are mental adjustments, to be honest with you,” Yost said. “… It seems like he’s got so much more trust in his stuff than he had before. He’s getting after it. It’s a thin line because I want you on the attack and get after it, but I ain’t talking about throwing the ball down the middle. I ain’t talking about rearing back and fricking letting it go. I’m talking about staying on the attack in quality parts of the strike zone to suppress offense, to suppress power.”