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Hernandez Aims For A Ring… Lopez Knows It's Time To Produce

Hernandez Aims For A Ring


Feb. 17, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. All rights reserved.

Lake Buena Vista, Fla. --- Roberto Hernandez briefly served as a setup man to Albie Lopez for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Yes, that Albie Lopez.

If for that reason alone, it wouldn't be surprising that Hernandez, with 320 career saves, has no qualms about being a setup man for John Smoltz. However, it's not why the Braves were able to sign him for the role.

"No. 1, it's a proven organization," he said. "It's the chance to play for the ring."

After five seasons in Tampa Bay and Kansas City, playing for two of the worst teams in baseball, Hernandez wanted to join a contender at this late stage of his career.

"I'll trade in every save of my career to say I was a champion," said Hernandez, who has quickly made an impression in Braves camp.

"Can't throw the ball any better than he has," said manager Bobby Cox, who added that he wouldn't hesitate to use Hernandez to close when Smoltz needs a rest.

Hernandez signed for a guarantee of only $600,000, one-tenth his 2002 salary.

Last season was the Puerto Rico native's worst in Kansas City, going 1-3 with a 4.33 ERA, .300 average allowed and 26 saves in 33 chances.

He spent April on the disabled list with a strained elbow and never got into a rhythm for a 100-loss team that didn't give him regular work between infrequent save situations. He had only nine save opportunities after July 21.

Hernandez, who is 6 feet 4 and 250 pounds, still throws consistently in the 94-96 mph range and can reach 100 mph. He also has a hard slider and splitter.

"His stuff is as good as ever," said right-hander Paul Byrd, a teammate in Kansas City and now Atlanta. "My prediction is he's going to have a great year. He'll get used regularly and he's playing for a winning team; the games will mean something."

Hernandez spent all but a half-season of his 12-year career in the American League. He went to Tampa Bay in the 1998 expansion draft and closed for three seasons, with a couple of brief stints as setup man when he was struggling.

Braves' Lopez Knows It's Time To Produce

Feb. 23, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) -- After the worst season of his career, Javy Lopez decided it was time to try a new routine.

``Lifting weights and eating like a pig,'' he said with an embarrassed grin. ``That wasn't a good combination.''

So, Lopez decided to eat healthier, do more running and alter his weightlifting routine. Now, he's the amazing shrinking catcher, reporting for camp with the Atlanta Braves weighing 35 pounds less than he did a year ago.

Lopez hopes that fewer pounds adds up to better numbers. Certainly, he can't afford to have another season like 2002, when he batted a career-low .233 with 11 homers and 52 RBIs.

``I need to prove that I've still got a lot of years left in me,'' he admitted.

The timing couldn't be more critical. Lopez is 32 and entering the final year of his contract. Because of the physical pounding they take, catchers generally have shorter careers than other position players.

With that in mind, the Braves acquired minor leaguer Johnny Estrada during the offseason, touting him as their catcher of the future.

Lopez knows that he has a lot to prove. He began last season weighing 245 pounds, leaving him sluggish on the field and prone to injuries.

The first sign of trouble came when he pulled a groin muscle running the bases. He wound up playing just 109 games, bothered most of the year by various aches and pains.

``You need to be able to block pitches. You need to be able to run and back up first,'' said Lopez, slimmed down to 210. ``You need to do so many things fast when you're a catcher. You hurt yourself when you're slow.''

Lopez already has noticed a big difference. His legs seem quicker. His arm feels stronger. His psyche has gotten a needed dose of confidence.

``I feel good about myself,'' Lopez said. ``With that kind of attitude, I can make things happen.''

General manager John Schuerholz acknowledges that Lopez has reached a crossroads in his career, considering his age and contract status.

``Those are critical considerations,'' Schuerholz said. ``I've been expecting Javy to have his comeback year for about the last three years.''

The Braves are pleased that Lopez has gotten in better condition, but it won't matter if he doesn't improve his offense.

In 1998, Lopez put up the best numbers of his career -- .284, 34 homers, 106 RBIs. Since then, he hasn't come close to matching that sort of output.

The last two seasons have been especially difficult. Lopez batted .267 with 17 homers and 66 RBIs in 2001, failing to drum up much interest in the free agent market.

Returning to Atlanta with a two-year contract, he slumped even more last season, prompting the Braves to wonder if his best days are behind him.

``I don't care how he looks so much as how he produces,'' Schuerholz said. ``He looks good. He says he feels better. I think this will give him more flexibility, more quickness.''

Lopez can understand why people might think he's on the downside of his career.

``The last two years have not been good years for me,'' he said. ``It's all up to me to produce. I still think I've got a lot of baseball in me. I still think I'm capable of putting up some good numbers.''

Lopez hopes to defy conventional thinking by rebounding in his 30s. He is inspired by San Francisco catcher Benito Santiago, still going strong as he approaches his 38th birthday.

``I consider myself a warrior,'' Lopez said. ``I still don't think I've put up the top numbers of my career. You see a lot of players explode in their 30s.''

Lopez hasn't given up on salvaging his career in Atlanta. He was a 17-year-old kid in Puerto Rico when he signed with the Braves, and he's been with the organization ever since.

``I can always change their mind and maybe sign for another year,'' Lopez said. ``This would be my first choice. After the last two seasons, I know they have been disappointed with my game. I don't blame them. All I can do is try to change their minds.''

At least he'll go down without a milkshake in his hand.

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