Lopez secures win for Chico in finale
Second baseman finishes a home run short of the cycle
WASHINGTON -- When he was informed by Nationals manager Manny Acta that he was going sit out Wednesday's game against the Braves, second baseman Felipe Lopez was not happy about the decision.
Lopez is the type of person who wants to play every inning of every game and he didn't want anyone to think he was soft. However, Lopez was in a 14-for-85 (.165) slump, with 23 strikeouts in 20 games. Acta knew Lopez would not ask out of the lineup, so Acta had to take the initiative to tell Lopez that he wasn't playing.
"I was not happy because I'm a gamer, I guess," Lopez said. "I don't like taking days off. I don't want people to think I'm soft. I like to compete. I was expecting to play. After a little time went by, it wasn't a big deal. I was thinking, 'Maybe, I do need a day off.'"
Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Lopez spent Wednesday afternoon working with hitting coach Lenny Harris on his swing. Harris' advice was simple: Just be yourself, sit back and let your hands do the work.
"Lenny said, 'You have fast hands. Let them work for you,'" Lopez said.
The day off and the lessons from Harris paid off on Thursday afternoon, as he finished just a home run short of the cycle and helped Washington edge the Atlanta, 4-3, in front of 24,631 fans at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.
Washington won its second consecutive series, has won six out of its last seven games and improved its record to 15-26.
After striking out in the first inning, Lopez singled in the third inning off starter Chuck James. Two inning later, Lopez doubled and scored on a single by Tony Batista to cut the Braves' lead to 3-2. It was the sixth inning where Lopez helped Washington take the lead.
With James still on the mound, Jesus Flores led off with a double. James was then taken out of the game after Nook Logan sacrificed Flores to third.
Right-hander Chad Paronto entered the game and gave up a pinch-hit single to Dmitri Young. Flores scored on the play and tied the score at 3.
Lopez followed Young and tripled to left-center field to drive in pinch-runner Cristian Guzman for the go-ahead run.
About an hour after driving in the go-ahead run, Lopez acknowledged that he needed that day off.
"It helped me clear my head... it helped me step back. I didn't do anything during the off-day. I took a couple of hacks [during batting practice]. I relaxed," Lopez said. "I would not take myself out of the lineup, but you never know what's going on with other people outside watching you. [Acta felt] I needed a day off and it paid off."
In his last at-bat in the in the bottom of the eighth inning, Lopez was going for the home run to complete the cycle, but right-hander Peter Moylan walked Lopez on four pitches.
"He was keeping the ball down. I took the walk. It's OK," Lopez said.
"[Lopez] showed his mental approach. Guys need that break once in a while. It's a little maintenance type of thing -- for the body, too," Acta said. "If you ask these guys, they will never get out of there. You have to take it into your hands and do it.."
The Nationals put the ball in Matt Chico's hands and he pitched six solid innings and gave up three runs on five hits. It's the first time this season he has had three consecutive solid starts.
Chico found himself behind the eight ball by the fourth inning, when Chipper Jones gave the Braves a 2-0 lead with a two-run homer. But Chico bounced back by retiring the next three hitters.
"He is not going to back down. That's what we like about him. We like his mental makeup," Acta said about Chico. "We've seen him throw the ball into the stands in Miami and then the very next pitch, he throws a strike. We've seen him give up home runs and go right after the guys right away. Those are the signs that we look for with kids who may take some lumps this year."
The lumps may be minimal in the future, because the Nationals are starting to believe that they can win more games than they lose. The pitching has been outstanding, the bench suddenly is stronger because of the presence of Young, Ronnie Belliard, Tony Batista and Robert Fick. If only they can get better with runners in scoring position.
"Don't underestimate us," left fielder Ryan Church said. "We have the offense. Now with our starting rotation going out there and giving us quality starts -- the bullpen is basically shutting it down -- we should not be overlooked by any means."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.