Originally created 05/12/02

Lopez bat comes alive for Braves



ATLANTA - This is the kind of week it's been for Javy Lopez. When he was asked if he knew what his batting average was, he replied, "I'm afraid to look."

Twice he arrived early at the park for batting practice, an exercise made slightly more painful when noted slugger Bobby Cox, career average .224, felt inclined to offer advice.

But it's never too late to start hitting, which is what Lopez did in Saturday night's 6-1 Braves' win over the San Diego Padres. Lopez knocked in five runs with a double and the fifth grand slam of his career to boost Atlanta's win streak to a modest three games.

"The way I hit today was more than I expected," said Lopez, who came into game with just three hits in his last 36 at-bats and was made the No. 8 hitter last week by manager Cox. "But I told myself, there's five months left in the season and I can still change things. That's the one thing that calmed me down and I came up ready today."

For one day, Lopez proved the angry voices on talk radio and the sarcastic wiseguys in the newspapers wrong. And a tip of his cap to hitting coach Terry Pendleton, who has repeatedly said there is nothing wrong with Lopez's swing that swinging at strikes wouldn't cure.

So, on a night when the Braves' first four hitters - Rafael Furcal, Julio Franco, Gary Sheffield, and Chipper Jones - were a collective 2-for-16 and failed to drive in a run or score one, Lopez shouldered the offense and made a winner of Jason Marquis.

"I was talking to Javy earlier and I told him, just imagine what will happen when you and me get going," Sheffield said. "Little did I know that it was him and not me I was referring to."

Lopez, who spent most of last year worrying about his declining batting average, has ignored the slings and arrows aimed at him this season. But he was well aware that he was batting .169, that he was 0-for-11 on this homestand, and that he had just one home run and five RBI entering the game.

"It's my fault I'm having a slow start," Lopez said. "Pitchers are kind of playing with my mind. But a game like tonight could change the whole season."

For a third straight game, the Braves used the long ball to squash their opponent. Lopez drove in a tainted run in the second with a double, then his grand slam and the first home run of Marquis's career highlighted a five-run fourth inning.

"Javy is a big part of this team," Cox said. "We need him to get rolling."

Making his first start since shoulder tendinitis forced him to miss four turns, Marquis held the Padres to one run on three hits in five innings, then turned the game over to his bullpen, which preserved his second win.

Marquis's command showed signs of rust. He threw 101 pitches, 60 strikes, and struggled to control his fastball.

"A month layoff and I was a little nervous," said Marquis, who evened his record at 2-2. "I was behind a lot of hitters, which I'm very unhappy about. I had good velocity, but not good location."

Marquis made a couple of mistakes in the second that cost him dearly. He walked Deivi Cruz to open the inning, handed a free pass to Ramon Vazquez one out later, then gave up an RBI single to .118-hitting pitcher Brian Lawrence with two outs.

Lawrence returned the favor in the bottom half of the second, second baseman D'Angelo Jimenez's error on Vinny Castilla's roller setting up Lopez's game-tying double with two outs and Marquis scheduled to hit next.

The Padres right-hander, despite allowing just two hits in the first three innings, was unable to survive the fourth.

Lawrence, who had allowed just two home runs in 50 innings this season, matched that total within six batters. He gave up a single to Andruw Jones, a double to Castilla, and intentionally walked Keith Lockhart to load the bases, but the pitch that caused him the most grief was his 0-and-2 offering to Lopez. Lawrence wanted to throw a slider down and away, but it hung over the middle of the plate and Lopez drove it into the left field stands, his first home run since April 9.

"Once I got 0-2, I told myself that if I'm going to strike out, I'm going to strike out swinging," Lopez said. "There's no way I'm taking pitches."

Marquis followed with another home run, a 359-foot drive into the right field seats to make it 6-1, and when Furcal whistled a double into left-center, Lawrence headed inside.

"Two outs, 0-2 count, and three pitches later it's 6-1," Sheffield said.

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.