After initial onslaught, Lopez salvages first career start

Reynaldo Lopez did not necessarily expect to find himself standing on the mound at Nationals Park this evening, a sellout crowd of 38,747 buzzing about the opener of a series against the high-profile Dodgers, but the 22-year-old found himself here because of the eye-popping repertoire of pitches he has shown off in the minors.

That repertoire is headlined by a fastball that has reached triple digits before and on this night consistently sat in the 97-98 mph range. Minor league hitters were unable to do much with it.

This, however, is not the minor leagues. And Lopez found that out quickly tonight when the Dodgers pounced on him for four early runs en route to an eventual 8-4 victory over the Nationals.

“They didn’t miss many fastballs,” manager Dusty Baker said. “And for a guy throwing as hard as he does, you would have expected them to miss more fastballs.”

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Why the Dodgers didn’t miss more of those heaters is a matter for debate and day-after dissection. Did Lopez throw too many of those pitches over the heart of the plate? Were Los Angeles’ veteran hitters too good? Did they pick up on something that helped them detect Lopez’s fastball?

Whatever the case, the end result through the evening’s first two innings was not pretty for Lopez or the Nationals. Seven of the Dodgers’ first 11 batters recorded base hits, the first five of them off fastballs.

“A lot of the pitches were good, but they were waiting for the fastball,” Lopez said via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “That’s what they were waiting for. And there were a lot of fastballs. After the first inning, I began mixing up the pitches and things changed.”

Indeed, what could have been a nightmare debut for a promising young pitcher turned far more encouraging as the evening progressed. After that initial 11-batter hailstorm of hits, Lopez retired eight consecutive batters, six of them on strikeouts.

All of those strikeouts, plus the three others he recorded during his 4 2/3 total innings on the mound, came on Lopez’s offspeed pitches: his curveball and his changeup, which he started using with far more frequency in his latter innings.

Why not use the full repertoire right out of the gates?

“You want to establish your fastball first in order to make your breaking ball and your changeup better,” Baker said. “But they didn’t really give him a chance to get to that breaking ball. They squared up that fastball quite a bit. You don’t want him to go out there right away and pitch backwards and then get behind and then have to come back to the fastball.”

With a bullpen still trying to recover from Sunday’s 18-inning marathon against the Pirates, Baker was forced to push Lopez as far as he could in this game. The rookie wound up throwing 105 pitches before he was pulled with two outs in the fifth. When he departed, though, he was greeted with a rousing ovation from the sellout crowd, perhaps recognizing the difficult task he faced tonight and how he managed to salvage something out of it.

The nine strikeouts he wound up recording were the most for any pitcher making a major league debut of fewer than five innings in the last century, according to ESPN.

“I thought to give up four runs in the first two innings and then settle down, throw up two zeroes, speaks a lot about him,” infielder Daniel Murphy said. “I think he’s really going to help us this year.”

It remains to be seen when Lopez next helps the Nationals. Fellow top pitching prospect Lucas Giolito tossed 6 2/3 innings tonight for Triple-A Syracuse and allowed only one unearned run. He could be recalled to start Sunday against the Padres, with Lopez going back to the minors. Or the Nationals could give Lopez another shot.

Either way, the young kid from the Dominican Republic who signed with the Nationals as a teenager emerged from his big league debut with head held high.

“It’s something incredible,” he said. “You always work hard to get here. It’s something incredible, because I started from the bottom and you never think you’re going to be here. Thank God, with the work I did, thank God we’re here.”

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