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Lopez making powerful case for roster spot

Catcher's spring surge may be what Padres are looking for from power-hitting lefty
MLB.com @AJCassavell

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Raffy Lopez knew he got all of it. He still didn't realize his prodigious home run on Friday night actually cleared the Peoria Stadium batter's eye until he returned to the dugout. His awestruck teammates, who also couldn't recall seeing a homer clear the 40-foot wall beyond center field, let him know right away.

There was a time Lopez wouldn't dream of crushing long balls like that one. There was another time -- after a swing change prior to the 2017 season -- when he did so on a simulator and wondered, "I hope this is real."

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PEORIA, Ariz. -- Raffy Lopez knew he got all of it. He still didn't realize his prodigious home run on Friday night actually cleared the Peoria Stadium batter's eye until he returned to the dugout. His awestruck teammates, who also couldn't recall seeing a homer clear the 40-foot wall beyond center field, let him know right away.

There was a time Lopez wouldn't dream of crushing long balls like that one. There was another time -- after a swing change prior to the 2017 season -- when he did so on a simulator and wondered, "I hope this is real."

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It's real. And if it continues, he could find a place as the 25th man on the Padres' roster -- a powerful lefty bat off the bench and a third catcher. He'd be just fine with that. Ecstatic, in fact.

"If that's how I have to contribute, I'm all about it," Lopez said. "When I was younger I used to think, 'Ah, I hate pinch-hitting, it's so hard.' It is hard. But now I've learned to look at every at-bat like it's the same. It's an opportunity to do something big. I think I have the right mentality for it."

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Lopez is battling with veteran A.J. Ellis for the backup job behind the plate. If he misses out, there's one final spot available -- to be settled between a third catcher, a sixth infielder or an eighth reliever.

He's made a nice case, batting .318/.423/.818 in 14 games. It wasn't long ago that Lopez -- as self-aware as ballplayers come -- thought he might be out of baseball entirely. At 28, Lopez posted a .559 OPS for Triple-A Louisville over 47 games in 2016.

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"I had my worst offensive year, I ended up in Indy ball, and I was like, 'Geez, I've got to do better,'" Lopez said. "I was at a crossroads as far as my career goes."

So, Lopez, who had just moved to the St. Louis area, found a private swing coach named Rick Strickland via Twitter. Together, the two focused on regaining the uppercut Lopez had in his swing before it was coached out of him early in pro ball.

In one of their first sessions together, Lopez hit a 460-foot blast on Strickland's HitTrax machine and questioned the validity. Then he stepped onto the diamond and launched 20 professional home runs -- three shy of his combined total in six seasons before that.

"I went into last year thinking it was my last year in baseball," Lopez said. "I went into it thinking, 'It's my last year, make the best of it, have fun.' I've kept that same mentality."

Lucchesi reassigned to Minors

The most eye-opening performer in Peoria this spring won't break camp with the Padres after all. Nonetheless, Joey Lucchesi doesn't appear far from his first callup to San Diego.

Video: CWS@SD: Lucchesi gets Davidson swinging

The 24-year-old left-hander put forth an excellent run in the Cactus League, posting a 1.54 ERA in four appearances and two equally impressive back-field starts. In the process, Lucchesi came from out of nowhere and put his name squarely in the Padres' rotation mix.

"It was a great camp for him," said Padres manager Andy Green. "He pushed us. There was real conversation of taking him right out of camp, the way he threw the baseball. ... It could be two weeks, it could be an injury, it could be anything that puts him back in the mix. He's not far off."

Ultimately, the club decided that Lucchesi, who ranks ninth among Padres' prospects, needed a bit more seasoning in the Minors. In parts of two professional seasons, Lucchesi owns a 1.99 ERA, rising to Double-A San Antonio last year.

Hedges busts his slump

A year ago, Austin Hedges opened his regular season by going hitless in his first 24 at-bats.

"If you could ask any veteran player if you want to go through your first slump in April or March, they're all going to say, 'Please: March," quipped Green before Saturday's 6-2 Cactus League victory over the Reds.

Following a hot start to Spring Training, Hedges entered Saturday mired in an 0-for-28 drought. He broke out in a big way, doubling twice.

Camp battles

• Righties Jordan Lyles and Phil Maton are battling for places in the Padres' bullpen. Both pitched scoreless frames on Saturday, using different avenues to get there. Lyles worked quickly, getting a strikeout, a walk and a double-play grounder. An inning later, Maton loaded the bases only to escape with a pop up, a strikeout and a fly ball to center.

• Lefties Buddy Baumann and Kyle McGrath could be fighting for one bullpen job between them, and they, too, pitched scoreless innings Saturday.

• Left fielder Matt Szczur launched his third homer of the spring, a two-run shot in the top of the sixth inning. He's squarely in the mix for the backup center-field job.

Up next

Dinelson Lamet, likely slated to follow Opening Day starter Clayton Richard in the rotation, will make his final start of the spring on Sunday when the Padres wrap up their Cactus League slate against Seattle. First pitch is slated for 12:10 p.m. PT. Listen to the game live on Gameday Audio.

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.

San Diego Padres, Raffy Lopez