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Heart Beats Strong Reliever Lopez Thriving In Pressure Role…Cintron Gets Shortstop Job For D - Backs

Heart Beats Strong Reliever Lopez Thriving In Pressure Role

Troy E. Renck Denver Post Sports Writer

February 27, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Denver Post

TUCSON - At first, his mother didn't believe it. She couldn't. There were no warning signs.

Javy Lopez, her 12-year-old son, was a normal kid with big- league dreams. He played all sports, leaving his mom, Sarah Lopez, with piles of dirty laundry but few worries.

Then, as part of a routine physical before football season in Fairfax, Va., her world collapsed. Doctors detected a murmur. A subsequent EKG revealed a ventricle problem. All

Sarah remembers hearing was that her youngest child had a dime- sized hole in his heart.

'I was freaking out,' his mother said Thursday. 'It was the scariest thing in my life.'

Within two weeks, her young son was on an operating table undergoing open-heart surgery. He was too young to appreciate the gravity of the situation. Like any kid, he thought it was cool that he was missing school.

'I remember what looked like jumper cables going into the room,' Lopez said. 'I guess it was in case my heart stopped on me.'

Fourteen years later, Lopez, 26, is a key left-handed reliever in the Rockies' bullpen, a job that by nature races pulses and endangers fingernails.

'It's funny, I have never really thought about it like that,' Lopez said. 'I like the pressure. I like knowing I am going to have a chance to be out there every day. My heart isn't something I even think about.'

But talking about it is a different story. You should see the looks Lopez gets during his annual physicals. His 4-inch scar is the first thing trainers notice.

'I tell them I was in a knife fight to sound tough,' Lopez joked. 'It's not that big a deal.'

Lopez's modesty is genuine. He's not comfortable in the spotlight, preferring to talk about teammates' performances or the day's headlines.

'He's very much about the team,' Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said. 'We are fortunate to have a guy of his character.'

Lopez, whose parents relocated to the States from Puerto Rico in 1981, never considered himself special even as those around him admired his ambition and talent. In high school, he never acted like a star despite statistics that begged for such behavior. In college, he seemed more grateful than entitled to his memorable career at the University of Virginia, which led to him being a fourth-round pick by Arizona in 1998.

Now, of course, he can't avoid questions about his success. Lopez arrived in Tucson halfway through spring training last year in a trade with the Boston Red Sox. He was given a chance to make the team, but little else. After all, he never had pitched above Double- A ball.

All he did was go 4-1 with a 3.70 ERA, baffling hitters with hokeypokey sidearm delivery and deceptive fastball.

'Guys just don't pick up the ball well against him,' catcher Charles Johnson said. 'It makes it harder because as a reliever you don't get to see him a lot.'

No longer an unknown, Lopez has focused this spring on improving his command, particularly on a changeup that should help him against right-handed hitters. He gets constant reinforcement from Brian Fuentes and Steve Reed, both of whom throw with a similar sidearm motion and know the difficult challenge of repeating success at Coors Field.

'We have the same concept and the same system of check points. I will take what he says a little more to heart because we are so similar,' Fuentes said. 'He's always willing to listen. He's a smart guy.'

That intelligence extends beyond the baseball field. Lopez graduated from the University of Virginia in 2001 - three years after he was drafted - with a degree in psychology. He made good on a pledge to his parents and father-in-law.

He even promised not to marry his sweetheart, Renee, a former soccer player at Virginia, until he finished his schooling.

'I credit my parents and wife for pushing me,' Lopez said. 'My mom is a schoolteacher and my dad is an FBI agent. One was a disciplinarian and the other was driving me to study, so I benefited from them both.'

His voracious appetite for information hasn't gone unnoticed by Rockies teammates who are expected to make him their player representative before the season. First baseman Todd Helton has held the role reluctantly and would prefer Lopez take over.

'I think he would be perfect,' Reed said. 'He's a guy who likes to know answers, that's the key because guys are always asking questions. He takes pride in what he does.'

Lopez almost didn't make it to this point. He struggled through his first four years in pro ball as a pedestrian starting pitcher. He wasn't making any money. Doubt crept in.

'I was chasing a dream, and I wasn't sure it was going to work out,' Lopez said.

Lopez switched his delivery in 2002 in what amounted to a desperate attempt to save his career. His improvement was immediate. But with Mike Myers in their bullpen, the Arizona Diamondbacks gave up on Lopez, exposing him to the Rule 5 draft where Boston acquired him.

If this journey seems unlikely - from unknown to Rockies bullpen linchpin - it seemed even more inconceivable when Lopez was diagnosed with heart problems as a boy.

'But I guess I should have known he was going to be all right,' Sarah said, 'when five weeks after his surgery he was out on the football field playing again. It was longest game of my life, but he was fine.'

Cintron Gets Shortstop Job For D - Backs


March 2, 2004
Copyright © 2004 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved.

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) -- Alex Cintron knows Interstate 10, the highway between Tucson and Phoenix, all too well.

The past two years, he has started the season at Triple-A Tucson, with regular forays up the freeway to join the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Not this year. Cintron begins the season as the everyday shortstop for the Diamondbacks, the first time he has gone to spring training with a spot on the big-league roster assured.

``It means a lot, you know. I'm pretty comfortable with myself and don't have to think about whether I'm going to be in Triple-A,'' he said after the team's workout Monday. ``But at the same time, I've got to work hard and show them I'm ready. I want to play every day here. I want to play shortstop for a lot of years.''

Cintron, 25, has made it the hard way. Drafted in the 36th round in 1997 -- a year before the Diamondbacks had played a game -- he climbed through all levels of the minor league system -- Lethbridge, High Desert, El Paso and, finally, Tucson.

He made a brief appearance with the big club in 2001, then was called up four times in 2002. His big opportunity came last year, when Craig Counsell was sidelined for the season with a neck injury.

Cintron responded with a .317 average, the best among Arizona players who had at least 210 at-bats. A switch-hitter, he hit .365 from the right side and .296 from the left.

``It was all about confidence,'' manager Bob Brenly said. ``It's kind of a natural progression for a young player with great ability like Alex has. At first, you just get by on ability, then when you are thrust into a situation, sometimes you might feel you're a little over your head and your confidence wavers a little bit and you don't get to see all the physical talents that are there.''

Last spring, Brenly and the rest of the Arizona coaching staff saw a noticeable difference in Cintron.

``Visibly, by his body language, it looked like he was ready to be a big-league shortstop,'' Brenly said. ``He played that way all spring. He carried right into the season with the Sidewinders, and when we had the need, we reached for Alex without any hesitation.''

Cintron is even more confident this spring, Brenly said.

``It's more of a take-charge attitude this year, rather than feeling his way along,'' Brenly said.

Brenly plans to go with a set lineup and batting order this season, with Cintron slotted at No. 5, between right-handed hitters Richie Sexson and Shea Hillenbrand.

``Partly it's because of his ability to switch-hit and break up those right-handers down at the bottom of the order,'' Brenly said, ``and partly it's because of what we saw last year.

``Alex is not one particular type of hitter if pitchers try to work him in. He can pull the ball if pitchers try to work him in. He can go to the opposite field if they work him away. He'll get his share of home runs, but his power is from gap-to-gap.''

Cintron hit .311 with runners in scoring position last season, .452 with runners on third base and .375 with the bases loaded.

``I know the guys around me. I know the league a little bit more,'' Cintron said. ``The last month, everybody knows you and how they're going to pitch you, and that was the best month I had. I gained a lot of confidence. I finished the season great.''

The No. 5 hitter usually swings for power. Not Cintron.

``I'm not going to change my approach,'' he said. ``If home runs come, fine. If not, I'm not going to try to lift the ball. I'm going to be myself, be a line-drive hitter.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, Cintron idolized countrymen Roberto Alomar and Carlos Baerga. Now both are his teammates. Alomar will start at second, and Baerga fills a utility infield and pinch-hit role.

"I think every Puerto Rican has followed those two guys,'' Cintron said. ``I'm pretty excited to play with them. My dream came true. I'm just going to enjoy it.''

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