'Tremendous' López dominates again as Braves cruise

April 17th, 2024

HOUSTON -- It’s too early to begin worrying about when the Braves might need to limit Reynaldo López’s starts. But the pitcher’s early-season success has highlighted the need for the team to wisely manage his workload, so he’ll still be strong down the stretch.

Plans might change multiple times between now and the start of the postseason. But after watching López throw six scoreless innings in a 6-2 win over the Astros on Tuesday night, the Braves felt even better about their offseason decision to sign the right-hander and move him back to a starting role.

“I felt mentally and physically prepared for how this was going to go, but I didn’t expect to have the type of results that I’ve had,” López said through an interpreter. "I was expecting a little more of a progression as I continued to re-accustom myself to this role. But I’m not going to lie. I’m extremely happy with the results.”

Serving as a starter on a regular basis for the first time since 2021, López has entered April’s second half with some of baseball’s top early season stats. He has allowed just one run while totaling 18 innings through his first three starts.

Oakland’s Paul Blackburn and Boston's Kutter Crawford are the only two MLB pitchers who have allowed one earned run or fewer with at least 18 innings completed this year.

“He’s a tremendous pitcher,” Braves shortstop Orlando Arcia said through a translator. “He has good command of his pitches and you can tell he knows which counts to throw them. He’s been tremendous. Hopefully, he keeps it going.”

It was an interesting night as the Braves claimed a third straight win and created a chance to finish a three-game sweep on Wednesday. Ronald Acuña Jr. limped for a few minutes after taking a fly ball off his knee cap. Arcia hit a second-inning homer that even he thought should have been ruled a double after hitting a yellow line on a rail in left-center field.

But the story of the night was Lopez, who surrendered four hits and tallied seven strikeouts while matching the six scoreless innings he posted against the Mets last week.

“His change was really good and then he threw some sliders,” Astros manager Joe Espada said. “Our history with him has only been one inning. He comes in throwing the fastball-slider, but today he pitched. He changed speeds and kept us off balance.”

When López was posting a 3.02 ERA over 129 appearances (1 start) from 2022-23, the fastball and slider combo accounted for more than 85 percent of his pitches. He showed his curveball much more frequently in his first two starts this year. But showing his versatility he threw just five curveballs in this latest start. His fastball and slider accounted for approximately 89 percent of the pitches he threw against the Astros.

Having the ability to confidently adjust his attack from start to start to adjust to the strengths of different lineups is something he said he didn’t do when he was previously serving as a starter.

“I just think I learned so many things as a reliever,” López said. “You just want to keep the hitters’ eyes moving.”

Lopez’s presence in the rotation has helped the Braves as they deal with Spencer Strider’s absence. Strider will miss the remainder of this season after undergoing elbow surgery last weekend. There is hope he could return early next season.

But it’s currently difficult to accurately project how the Braves’ rotation might look at the start of next season. Max Fried could leave via free agency and 40-year-old Charlie Morton could retire. Exactly when Strider could rejoin the rotation might remain unknown throughout the winter months.

So, López building up as a starter this year could be every bit as beneficial next year, when he could possibly serve as a starter on a full-time basis. It might take a year or two for him to get back to where he was when he threw 188 2/3 innings in 2018 and 184 innings in 2019.

López hasn’t thrown more than 66 innings in a season since 2019. Rebuilding his endurance will be a process.

The Braves have been able to give him just one start per week so far. That’s likely not sustainable. But for now, Braves manager Brian Snitker continues to say the team hasn’t discussed a long-term plan to ensure López is still strong enough to serve as a starter or reliever when the postseason arrives.

“I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing and put a lot of focus on recovery,” López said. “As far as October goes, whether it’s a starter, closer or reliever the only thing that matters to me is winning. The goal is to win the World Series.”