ANAHEIM -- Last season, Jorge López was trapped in his own head.
Tabbed for the starting rotation on a rebuilding Orioles squad, López was knocked around over 33 appearances (25 starts), his ERA ballooning to 6.07. It was never about stuff for the 29-year-old, a former second-round Draft choice of the Brewers in 2011 with a 98 mph wipeout sinker. It was the pressing, the self-analyzing, the thoughts that he needed to be better after a couple bad starts.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself when I was starting,” López said. “When I went to [compete], it wasn’t calm.”
But in the span of a single offseason, López has gone from inconsistent journeyman starter to a dominant closer capable of breezing through the mightiest of hitters. Saturday night’s 5-4 Orioles win over the Halos at Angel Stadium was perhaps his most impressive outing yet, as López trotted out to the mound in the ninth inning to work his way through the top of a devastating lineup.
This is the “Lopey,” as he’s called, that manager Brandon Hyde believed he could be. The Lopey with the winning smile but a career ERA akin to a pitching machine. The Lopey Hyde sat down at the beginning of the season and told he was going to throw late in games, against the toughest part of the lineup.
“I believed so much in his stuff,” Hyde said. “Whether that’s going to be the seventh, eighth or ninth, he was going to face the middle of the order, and he’s taken it and run with it. He’s super confident on the mound.”
There are middle-of-the-orders, and then there is the Angels’ middle of the order, complete with two MVPs and a $245-million-man in Anthony Rendon. Clinging to a one-run lead built off walks, hit-by-pitches, smart baserunning and a couple timely hits, López set pinch-hitter Matt Duffy down swinging, and then worked his way back from a 3-0 count to whiff the mighty Shohei Ohtani for two quick outs.
As a starter last season, López compiled a 6.35 ERA in 25 outings before shifting to the 'pen, his strikeout stuff not able to overcome struggles with control and fly balls. But in a cup of coffee in the bullpen, that mark dipped to 2.16. López entered 2022 knowing it was going to be an “important year,” he said.
“I was excited to give him the ball this year,” Hyde said. “Unfortunately, he sprained his ankle towards the end of [last] year, and we didn’t really get to see what it’d look like for a long period of time.”
They’re getting to see now. López has racked up four saves already, tied for fourth-most in the league, whiffing 13 across nine innings.
First baseman Ryan Mountcastle, who did some slump-busting Saturday in leading the Orioles with three RBIs, called López’s sinker-slider-knuckle-curve mixture “electric.”
“Very few guys get over to first base,” Mountcastle said, “but when they do, they’re all saying, ‘That guy’s nasty.’ He’s a lot of fun to play behind.”
He’s one of the oldest members of a surprisingly dominant Orioles bullpen. But with his new status as a full-time reliever, López said he’s learning from others -- most importantly, altering his mentality.
On April 13, he imploded in an appearance against Milwaukee, surrendering his only two runs of the season and recording just two outs. Last season, it might’ve eaten at López. Instead, he took 10 minutes to be upset after the game. Thought about what was next. And then let it go.
“If I do bad, just take five minutes, and that’s it,” López said. “We’ve been supporting each other to do that.”
So when Mike Trout knocked a two-out sinker into left field for his third hit of the night, López didn’t panic. Facing Rendon, he unleashed a 2-1 sinker that the third baseman grounded right to second base. Save complete, the beaming righty pounded his fist into his glove, wrapping catcher Anthony Bemboom in a hug.
It’s been a long road to nirvana for López. But finally, he’s starting to live in the moment.