Originally created 02/24/03

Lopez knows it's time to produce

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- After the worst season of his career, Javy Lopez decided it was time to try a new routine.

"Lifting weights and eating like a pig," he said with an embarrassed grin. "That wasn't a good combination."

So, Lopez decided to eat healthier, do more running and alter his weightlifting routine. Now, he's the amazing shrinking catcher, reporting for camp with the Atlanta Braves weighing 35 pounds less than he did a year ago.

Lopez hopes that fewer pounds adds up to better numbers. Certainly, he can't afford to have another season like 2002, when he batted a career-low .233 with 11 homers and 52 RBIs.

"I need to prove that I've still got a lot of years left in me," he admitted.

The timing couldn't be more critical. Lopez is 32 and entering the final year of his contract. Because of the physical pounding they take, catchers generally have shorter careers than other position players.

With that in mind, the Braves acquired minor leaguer Johnny Estrada during the offseason, touting him as their catcher of the future.

Lopez knows that he has a lot to prove. He began last season weighing 245 pounds, leaving him sluggish on the field and prone to injuries.

The first sign of trouble came when he pulled a groin muscle running the bases. He wound up playing just 109 games, bothered most of the year by various aches and pains.

"You need to be able to block pitches. You need to be able to run and back up first," said Lopez, slimmed down to 210. "You need to do so many things fast when you're a catcher. You hurt yourself when you're slow."

Lopez already has noticed a big difference. His legs seem quicker. His arm feels stronger. His psyche has gotten a needed dose of confidence.

"I feel good about myself," Lopez said. "With that kind of attitude, I can make things happen."

General manager John Schuerholz acknowledges that Lopez has reached a crossroads in his career, considering his age and contract status.

"Those are critical considerations," Schuerholz said. "I've been expecting Javy to have his comeback year for about the last three years."

The Braves are pleased that Lopez has gotten in better condition, but it won't matter if he doesn't improve his offense.

In 1998, Lopez put up the best numbers of his career - .284, 34 homers, 106 RBIs. Since then, he hasn't come close to matching that sort of output.

The last two seasons have been especially difficult. Lopez batted .267 with 17 homers and 66 RBIs in 2001, failing to drum up much interest in the free agent market.

Returning to Atlanta with a two-year contract, he slumped even more last season, prompting the Braves to wonder if his best days are behind him.

"I don't care how he looks so much as how he produces," Schuerholz said. "He looks good. He says he feels better. I think this will give him more flexibility, more quickness."

Lopez can understand why people might think he's on the downside of his career.

"The last two years have not been good years for me," he said. "It's all up to me to produce. I still think I've got a lot of baseball in me. I still think I'm capable of putting up some good numbers."

Lopez hopes to defy conventional thinking by rebounding in his 30s. He is inspired by San Francisco catcher Benito Santiago, still going strong as he approaches his 38th birthday.

"I consider myself a warrior," Lopez said. "I still don't think I've put up the top numbers of my career. You see a lot of players explode in their 30s."

Lopez hasn't given up on salvaging his career in Atlanta. He was a 17-year-old kid in Puerto Rico when he signed with the Braves, and he's been with the organization ever since.

"I can always change their mind and maybe sign for another year," Lopez said. "This would be my first choice. After the last two seasons, I know they have been disappointed with my game. I don't blame them. All I can do is try to change their minds."

At least he'll go down without a milkshake in his hand.


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