It’s still strange to Jorge López, leaving the clubhouse and climbing the dugout steps onto the field before the seventh inning, then walking through the outfield to the bullpen. In an earlier life, López would’ve been out there already. He might’ve already taken the mound in relief of a starter.
That’s changed for the Orioles right-hander, though, and it still catches López by surprise as he sits in the clubhouse watching a game unfold so close by — an inactive participant until later, when Baltimore might call upon him for a save situation.
As López, 29, adapts to the closing role — one he’s careful to emphasize is temporary, based on performance — he has taken more time to familiarize himself with how to pass the time by himself than how to handle the spotlight that comes from protecting a narrow lead in the game’s crucial moments.
“So weird,” López said. “Because I was a guy where I used to carry the bags [to the bullpen], to being a guy where now I go in the seventh inning. It’s kind of tricky.”
But López is also proud of the distinction. He knows he’s earned the closer role through his performances thus far. Entering Tuesday, López held a 0.75 ERA with 13 saves in 36 innings. It makes the reliever — who’s signed through 2022 — a potential trade-deadline target for contenders. But in the meantime, those performances led manager Brandon Hyde to pull López aside to discuss the pitcher’s new routine and special circumstances.
The game’s top closers have a particular routine. They can arrive later than most. They do individual work, be it mental or physical, while the game progresses. And once they’re ready, they saunter to the bullpen, expecting a call if there’s a high-stress scenario.
That’s where López, who started 25 games for Baltimore last season, suddenly finds himself. And while he initially pushed back lightly to Hyde’s suggestion, López is feeling more comfortable with the altered routine.
“I want him to feel like a late-inning guy,” Hyde said. “He said something to me about, ‘Hey, I might go out in there in fifth.’ I was like, ‘You don’t have to go out there in the fifth. I’m not using you.’”
So López arrives to the bullpen in the seventh inning, although Hyde admitted he probably won’t use him then, either — the earliest López has entered a game this season is the eighth.
Last season, López pitched 121 2/3 innings and featured more often as a starter than a reliever. His ERA ballooned to 6.07 and his fastball averaged 95 mph. Now, López still provides length, completing four- or five-out saves regularly. But his fastball velocity has jumped to 98 mph in his new role, and López is throwing his sinker far more frequently than his four-seamer this season, which has led to an increase in groundball outs.
During López’s new routine, he arrives at the clubhouse later than some of his teammates. He goes through warmups with the rest of the relievers, but he might take a shower as the game gets underway. Then he works on relaxing.
“It’s gonna sound crazy, but just try not to care,” López said. “I care so much, because I know baseball’s hard enough, and I prepare myself so much.”
So once the game begins, his preparation, in a sense, stops. He gets loose, watches the game and unwinds until it’s his time to appear.
He realizes it’s a privilege most relievers don’t have, and it’s based on his success so far this season. Hyde wouldn’t have encouraged López to take advantage of the privileges that come with being the closer if he didn’t own a 0.81 WHIP.
There’s still a part of him that feels guilty that he’s not with his teammates from the first pitch. But they understand, and as their careers develop, they could find themselves in López’s shoes.
“I wish guys can get with me and not be the only one to stay, but some guys have to be early,” López said. “They see me now doing this, they’ll do it later, for sure. Because they will get their shot.”
Just as López did, even when he never expected it.
Wednesday, 4:10 p.m.
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