Lopez ready to contribute to contending team

Lopez ready to contribute to contending team

DENVER -- Rockies right-handed relief pitcher Wilton Lopez posted impressive numbers for the Astros from 2009-12. Although he struggled for much of the first half of this year with the Rockies, he insists pitching for a team with contending is a benefit more than a source of pressure.

"The pitching is the same, whether it's the Astros or here, but one thing I do know is I feel a lot more relaxed, I've got a lot more energy and I'm a lot more excited," Lopez, a native of Nicaragua, said in Spanish, translated by Joe Diaz, the Rockies' assistant clubhouse manager and equipment manager.

"I love having a chance to get to the postseason. This is a good energy. The most important thing is I feel relaxed. I just need to control my pitch right now."

Wednesday night was a start toward Lopez becoming the groundball-inducing, late-innings stalwart that the Rockies thought they were getting in a trade with the Astros during the winter. Lopez threw a 90-mph, inside sinker that broke the bat of the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton and forced an inning-ending grounder with the bases loaded.

The Marlins had loaded the bases with no outs against Edgmer Escalona, but Escalona fanned Adieny Hechevarria with the count full and Josh Outman struck out Christian Yelich. To put the inning down, manager Walt Weiss went to Lopez, who had spent some time in the first half pitching in non-pressure roles because of inconsistency that had his ERA at 4.57 on July 11.

Wednesday was the first time Lopez pitched in a close game that the Rockies won since he recorded one out in a 2-1 victory over the Giants on June 29.

Lopez's groundball rate had never gone below 1.74 per fly ball in his career, but this year it's just 1.13, counting Stanton's inning-ender. Lopez didn't shy away from pitching. He led the relief staff in appearances with 49 going into Thursday afternoon's game with the Marlins. But he admitted his struggles weighed on him.

"The first half didn't go like I wanted it to, but games like last night help out my confidence," Lopez said. "The All-Star break was big mentally for me, to take those three or four gays off to rest. This is the first time in my career that I have struggled. So during the break, I stayed home with my family and got a fresh start."

Lopez (1-3, 4.25 ERA) has made three scoreless appearances since the break, and manager Walt Weiss believes he handled the struggles well and is in a good place.

"He's a tough kid," Weiss said. "He always wants the ball, always wants to go out for another inning. He never shies away from it. Even when he had some struggles early, the guy would campaign to go out for another inning. He loves to pitch, loves to compete, is very durable."

Catcher Yorvit Torrealba said, "I think he's pounding the strike zone, which is very good."

Weiss and Torrealba both noted that Lopez's sinker might be more effective at 90 mph than his top-end velocity of 94. Lopez, who also has helped his performance by employing his slider, said he doesn't believe velocity helps or hampers him.

"My sinker is my best pitch," Lopez said. "When I throw it, it doesn't matter if it's 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, I can get the same sink on it. When I let it go, sometimes it will come out 90, sometimes it'll come out 93 or 94. That really doesn't matter if the ball sinks well enough."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.