Game Two of baseball’s World Series, eighth inning, two outs, a runner on second. The Texas Rangers, trailing the San Francisco Giants 2-0, need a big hit. MVP Josh Hamilton comes to the plate.
The Giants counter by bringing in reliever Javier Lopez, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound left-hander who played his college baseball for UVA.
Baseball analysts have predicted the Lopez-Hamilton matchup will be crucial, and it certainly is at this moment. If Hamilton can spark a rally, the Rangers could even the Series at a game apiece. If Lopez can get Hamilton out and help the Giants win the game, they will be in firm control of the 2010 Series.
Lopez delivers his first pitch with his distinctive sidearm motion. Strike one. Hamilton is at a disadvantage now. He steps out of the box for a moment and refocuses. Lopez checks the runner on second, looks back at Hamilton and fires another sidearm pitch. Hamilton swings and makes contact, but all he manages is a lazy fly ball. For the Giants’ centerfielder, it is an easy out.
The inning is over, and, as it turns out, that will be Lopez’s final pitch of the 2010 season. The Giants win Game Two and go on to take the best-of-seven series in a tidy five games. For the entire Series, Lopez faces just two batters. He throws four pitches—all strikes—and gets both batters out.
It’s the kind of performance every college pitcher dreams of. Lopez (Col ’02) confesses, though, that he had different dreams when he was a Cavalier.
He was both a pitcher and a first baseman at Virginia. He batted an impressive .319 with 15 home runs in his three college seasons. He was a dangerous hitter—his first college at-bat was a grand slam home run—and he imagined making the big leagues as a position player, not a pitcher.
“I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t want to make it as a hitter first,” he says. “You get to play every day, and that’s what I liked to do. But eventually I could see my best shot was as a pitcher.”
Lopez was drafted after the 1998 season, his third year at UVA. He struggled to catch on in the major leagues. Looking for a way to become more effective against left-handed hitters, he made the switch from his over-the-top style to a sidearm delivery.
It’s not easy to do. Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti says no more than one in 20 who try it succeed.
Dennis Womack, Virginia’s assistant director of athletics for facilities and game operations, was baseball coach at the University for 23 years, including Lopez’s stay in the late 1990s. Womack saw then that Lopez had the skills to make the sidearm pitch work.
“It’s not easy to throw the way he throws,” Womack says. “To make the change, a pitcher has to be willing to be adaptable. And he has to have real athletic ability. It’s hard to keep your balance throwing from the side.
“Javier is a great athlete. He’s not just a pitcher. At Virginia he could hit, he could field. And another thing he could do—he could run. He’s just an all-around athlete. That’s what makes him able to make the kind of change he has made.”
Womack also remembers Lopez as a relatively quiet player, especially his first year. Later, Womack says, Lopez took more of a leadership role, “but he was never a rah-rah kind of guy.”
Lopez said that one reason he was willing to risk the switch to the sidearm style was that he had become comfortable throwing that way at Virginia as a first baseman.
“When you’re at first base you can get a little lazy with your throwing arm, just slinging the ball around the infield. I was always throwing sidearm.”
As a pro, however, it was a serious endeavor. “I was taking instruction,” he says, “working on it, making adjustments on my own.”
Lopez played with several teams and started the 2010 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was already having his best season ever at Pittsburgh when the Giants, looking to shore up their bullpen, traded for him in July. With his new team, Lopez was brilliant. In 27 appearances he had a sparkling earned run average of 1.42.
He was almost unhittable in postseason play. Against the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and the Rangers, Lopez faced 19 batters and gave up just one hit and one walk.
Lopez has shown determination in an area besides professional sports. Three years after he left college to pursue his baseball career, he finished his studies at Virginia by earning a degree in psychology.
“I had done three years at a great university,” he said. “I figured I should finish.”
Besides, he said, he had promised his fiancée’s father that he would get the degree before he married fellow UVA student Renee Richards (Col ’99). They had known each other from their days at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County and started dating in earnest at UVA.
Like every San Francisco Giant, this year Lopez will be gunning for a season to match 2010. Maybe there’s one other thing the former first baseman would like—a few more at-bats.
Specialty relief pitchers almost never get a chance to swing the bat. Lopez has appeared in 245 major league games and has just 11 at-bats. He has one hit, a single, but it wasn’t wasted—he drove in a run.
It could be a long time before he notches another grand slam.