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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

June 24, 2009 at 11:10 AM

Hoping for the best for, and from, Jose Lopez

lopezpoint.jpg

One can only imagine the pain and anguish being felt by Jose Lopez, who has now had to endure the death of two siblings in the span of two years.

Lopez is expected back today from Venezuela, where his older sister died late last week after a long battle with cancer. When her condition worsened, Lopez left the Mariners from Denver, where they were playing the Rockies, but she had passed away before he arrived.

Still, Lopez did get to get some semblance of closure by attending her funeral. You might recall that he didn’t get that opportunity when his older brother, Gabriel, died in Venezuela in June of 2007. Lopez was at Wrigley Field for an interleague series against the Cubs when he got a phone call just a few hours before game time on June 13, iinforming him of the devastating news that Gabriel had been killed in a motorcycle accident. I happened to be with the team at that time, and I recall vividly the somber atmosphere in the clubhouse that entire series.

According to Geoff Baker’s game story that day, “Lopez spoke to his father, Celestino, by phone and was told the funeral would be held this morning, making it impossible to fly to south America in time. So Lopez donned his cap, laced up his spikes and did the only other thing he could. “My daddy said to stay and play baseball for him,” Lopez said. “Play the season for your brother.”

Lopez never left the team, never had the chance for any sort of closure. And he seemed to pay a psychic price — as well as a tangible one, in the form of statistics. On June 13, Lopez was hitting .295 with a .772 OPS (on-base plus slugging). He had 47 RBI. Lopez finished that year with a .252 batting average, a .639 OPS, and 62 RBI. From the time he learned of his brother’s death through the end of the season, he hit just .223 wtih 15 RBI, and was benched briefly by manager John McLaren for lack of focus — understandable, in light of the circumstances. After the All-Star break in 2007, Lopez hit .213, with a .238 on-base percentage, just nine extra-base-hits, and a .519 OPS.

Can you blame that slide all on his grief? Who knows? The previous year, Lopez had also faded in the second half, going from nine homers, 58 RBI and a .771 OPS before the All-Star break to one homer, 21 RBI, and a .658 OPS after the break. Last year, after a productive season of winter ball in Venezuela for Cardenales de Lara, where he admittedly worked on improving his concentration, Lopez had a consistently solid 2008 season. He hit .297 with 17 homers, 89 RBI, and a .764 OPS, making the American League All-Star team.

This season, Lopez struggled early but was scorching hot when he left for Venezuela (.309 in 14 games played in June, with five homers, 16 RBI and a .948 OPS). Overall, he is hitting .248 with 10 homers, 42 RBI and a .699 OPS, still putting him in the upper echelon of the league’s second basemen.

Obviously, Lopez’s mental well-being is the Mariners’ foremost concern at the moment. He will likely return to the active roster tomorrow. As with Rob Johnson, who lost his mother-in-law a few days before Lopez’s tragedy, I’m sure his teammates and the Mariner staff will be welcoming and supportive.

It might seem insensitive to say this now, but the Mariners do need Lopez’s bat if they are to mount a serious run at the AL West title. And a big part of accomplishing that will be helping him to get through his personal crisis and to commence with the healing process. In that regard, regardless of how it translates in performance, I’m sure even Mariners’ rivals are pulling for him.

(Associated Press photo)

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