ATLANTA — And then Rodrigo Lopez pitched his fourth inning.
Entering in relief for Brandon Beachy, the near-certain Gwinnett Braves starter looked strong and was perfect for his first three innings against a mishmash of Minnesota Twins major-and minor- leaguers. He started in the fifth inning facing the top of the Twins’ starting lineup and sat it down. Denard Span flew out, Tsuyoshi Nishioka grounded out and Justin Morneau flew out.
Over his next two innings, he kept retiring Twins, adding two strikeouts to his tally. But in the fourth, the perfection ended. Lopez gave up a double to start the inning, struck out the next two and then gave up back-to-back RBI hits to break the scoreless tie.
Lopez didn’t give up another hit until the eighth inning, retiring the final three batters, but the Braves did not give him any run support in the 2-0 loss.
A lineup stocked with potential G-Braves did load the bases in the eighth inning, but Mauro Gomez could not make it back-to-back go-ahead home runs following his game winner from Tuesday night. Gomez grounded out in his second spring training at-bat.
Despite the one shaky inning, Lopez ended with a solid line, giving up two runs off three hits over five innings. He struck out five and didn’t walk a batter.
“You feel good (watching that performance),” said first-year Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. “You feel comfortable with guys like Lopez and the guys we have down in the minors.”
A potential Atlanta Braves candidate during the spring, the 35-year-old right-hander signed a minor league contract with Atlanta this offseason. He pitched all of 2010 with the Arizona Diamondbacks in his first full season since late 2007 Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. He went 7-16 with a 5.00 ERA in 33 starts.
Lopez has spent at least parts of nine seasons in the major leagues, breaking in with San Diego in 2000. In 2004 and 2005 he won 14 and 15 games, respectively, with a sub-5.00 ERA. He signed with the Braves in 2008, but struggled in three appearances and was released. He made seven appearances with the Phillies in 2009.
But it’s back to the minors for Lopez, who heads back to Orlando, Fla., for a four days with a 3.80 spring ERA in six appearances and four starts.
In the final exhibition game before the big-league season starts today for Atlanta at Washington, the lineup against the Twins had a G-Braves feel from the start. Six of the nine position players and the starter, Beachy, all spent time over the past two seasons as active players on the Gwinnett roster. And a seventh, Joe Mather, will start there this season. And as the game wore on, more and more potential G-Braves entered.
Catcher J.C. Boscan started and played the whole game, going 1-for-2 with a walk. The first catching option for the G-Braves after the departure of Clint Sammons, Boscan ended his big-league spring hitting .304. He made his major league debut last September.
“It’s been a really good experience,” he said. “Last year was great.”
With only five total hits on the day, most of the potential Gwinnett players made their statement in the field.
Dan Nelson made a diving catch at third base in the ninth inning, Ed Lucas tracked down a foul ball nearly in the third baseline stands and long-shot Antoan Richardson may have saved a hit or two with his speed and diving heroics in left field.
“It’s nice to see our young players come up and it’s nice to see them get some at-bats up here,” Gonzalez said.