Backstop Lopez back in his element

Backstop Lopez back in his element

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Spring Training, especially the early portion with just pitchers and catchers formally working out, is repetitive, no getting around it. But don't tell new Rockies catcher Javy Lopez that it's dull.

Lopez appreciates wearing the gear more than ever.

Last spring, the Orioles tried to make Lopez a first baseman. It was the beginning of a lost season during which he batted a combined .251 with the Orioles and Red Sox, fitting in neither place, and afterward finding himself with few job prospects.

"Last year was tough, there was no doubt about it," Lopez said. "I've always been a catcher all my life. With the Orioles, they were trying to put me in as a first baseman, since they signed Ramon Hernandez, and it was tough just because it was the last year of my contract.

"The whole Spring Training I never caught for one pitcher. That's what Spring Training is for, to prepare yourself for the season. The fact I didn't catch anyone, it was a year of frustration. I had no control over that. Now, I [get to] start with a new team from the beginning, catching bullpens, catching exhibition games."

When Lopez, 36, played for the Braves from 1992-2003, he showed up at Spring Training virtually assured of playing in the postseason. Now he's assured of nothing -- he, Yorvit Torrealba and rookie Chris Iannetta are gunning for two spots -- but he's happy.

"It's like when I first signed professionally and I have to compete for a position," Lopez said. "It's good because it kind of puts me in a work mode. It's a situation where I have to work harder than I normally have to work."

Lopez will have to prove he can be an effective catcher again after a lost year.

Almost as odd as Lopez spending last spring at first base -- a position he had played exactly once in his Major League career -- was the fact the Orioles scrapped the experiment before the regular year began. So Lopez spent 53 games as a designated hitter, all with the Orioles, and 38 behind the plate, 21 with the Orioles and 17 with the Red Sox.

Despite not being able to prepare to catch, Lopez did impress someone with his work.

Right-handed pitcher Rodrigo Lopez was a teammate of Javy Lopez for two seasons with the Orioles. By last season, both were struggling -- until they joined forces.

Rodrigo Lopez never found a rhythm with Hernandez. But he had already been through an adjustment period with Javy Lopez, and he pitched well when the two were reunited.

"One day, they put Javy behind the plate and I threw one of my best games, in Seattle," Rodrigo Lopez said. "So from that time, Javy was my personal catcher.

"After the first game, we got so comfortable with each other and he wasn't afraid to call any pitch at any time. I didn't think twice. Whatever he put down, I threw. It was a good feeling when Javy and I were together. It's one of those weird things that happens."

Rodrigo Lopez went 7-4 with a 4.49 ERA with Javy Lopez behind the plate, in a year in which he led the American League in losses and finished 9-18 with a 5.90 ERA. The Rockies hope the weird and wonderful connection continues.

They signed Javy Lopez to one-year deal that will pay him a $1 million base salary once he's added to the active roster, with another $600,000 in incentives available, on Jan. 9. Three days later, the Rockies traded for Rodrigo Lopez.

Javy Lopez is glad he's with a club where more folks than just a single pitcher believe he's a winner.

"No other team offered me anything, but the Rockies were generous enough and they believed in what I could do," Lopez said. "When they gave me the opportunity, I wanted to try not to let them down."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.