From Javier Lopez's 60-foot, six-inch perspective, it seems as if there's no such thing as a mediocre left-handed batter. That doesn't faze him.Lopez is the left-handed reliever the Giants use to neutralize opposing lefty hitters. He's among the best at what he does, having allowed only 11 of 70 inherited runners (15.7 percent) to score since 2009 and limiting left-handers to a .161 batting average (25-for-155) since he made his Giants debut on Aug. 1, 2010.
On Tuesday, Lopez retired Andre Ethier, Tony Gwynn and James Loney consecutively to set up the Giants' 2-1 victory at Los Angeles. For the season, he's 3-0 with a 1.42 ERA.But the challenges keep coming for the 34-year-old. During San Francisco's three-game series at Arizona beginning Friday, he'll probably be summoned to face the likes of Miguel Montero, Lyle Overbay, Jason Kubel and Gerardo Parra. When the Rockies visit AT&T Park next week, Lopez is bound to confront the formidable trio of Carlos Gonzalez, Todd Helton and Jason Giambi. Then come the St. Louis Cardinals, whose left-handed complement includes Jon Jay and Skip Schumaker, both hitting well over .300. Each confrontation stimulates Lopez.
"It's something you have to relish," he said. "It's kind of what I've grown accustomed to."Hitters who have grown accustomed to facing Lopez don't benefit from the familiarity. Ask Ethier, the National League leader in RBIs who grounded into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded in the eighth inning on Tuesday. That made Ethier 1-for-7 lifetime against Lopez. Ethier suggested that Lopez's effectiveness drives batters toward desperation. "Swing as hard as you can," a grinning Ethier said, describing his strategy against Lopez. "Pick out three good pitches and hopefully you'll hit a home run." Of course, no hitter in his right mind tries to hit home runs, at least most of the time. This likely was Ethier's way of implying that a batter's best shot against Lopez is to hope he accidentally elevates a pitch. That rarely happens to Lopez, who relies on his side-winding delivery and almost unerring location. He's forced to be deceptive and precise, since his fastball hovers in the 87 mph range, according to Fangraphs.com. "I know I have that arm angle that's a little uncomfortable for a left-handed hitter, regardless of who it is," said Lopez, who parlayed his skill into a two-year, $8.5 million contract which the Giants gave him last Oct. 30 to keep him off the free-agent market. "I'm not the hardest thrower, but I like to think I can move the ball around pretty well and ultimately keep it down in the zone." During a stretch such as the current one, in which a succession of lefty hitters awaits, Lopez will study videotape of these batters' performances -- not only against him, but also recently against various left-handers. One would expect this type of studious approach from Lopez, who holds a degree in psychology from the University of Virginia. "Physically, I'm not going to throw much harder; my stuff's not going to get that much better," he said. "So now it's putting my mind and body in the right place so I can throw a pitch the way I want to execute it. That's really what I'm focused on."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.