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In improbable first half for 2022 Orioles, Lopez receiving All-Star nod feels right

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An improbable first half for the upstart Orioles made a former waiver claim a fitting choice to represent them at next week’s All-Star Game in Los Angeles.

As Baltimore won its eighth straight game to move to one game under .500 on Sunday afternoon, closer Jorge Lopez learned he’d be going to the Midsummer Classic at Dodger Stadium, capping a heartwarming story for a 29-year-old who’s dealt with challenges on and off the field. In his first season as a closer, the right-hander has led an overachieving bullpen full of former waiver claims with 16 saves in 20 chances and a 1.74 ERA over 41 1/3 innings. Lopez has recorded four or more outs to earn a win or save nine times, reflecting how heavily manager Brandon Hyde has leaned on the ex-starter who entered 2022 with a career 6.04 ERA across six major league seasons with Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Baltimore.

“I have to be thankful to Brandon and Mike [Elias] just for giving me that job and trusting me,” said Lopez, who was claimed off waivers by the Orioles on Aug. 9, 2020. “That’s something at this level you don’t see a lot. When a guy has struggled a lot and [you still] give him the opportunity, it’s huge. I don’t waste it.”

Routinely faltering trying to navigate a lineup multiple times for Orioles clubs that desperately needed starter innings in 2020 and 2021, Lopez flashed potential as a reliever late last season, but no one could have predicted him becoming an All-Star closer in 2022. Needless to say, his four-pitch repertoire has played more effectively out of the bullpen with Lopez striking out 10.2 batters per nine innings and handling plenty of high-leverage situations for the surging Orioles, who are 26-12 in games in which he’s pitched this season.

That’s why Hyde didn’t blink after Lopez blew back-to-back saves in Minnesota earlier this month.

“If he’s not on our team, I don’t know where we’re at,” first baseman Ryan Mountcastle said. “He’s been unbelievable all year, and for him to get the All-Star nod, I’m so happy for the guy. He’s been through a lot, and just for him to be in this situation, I’m super happy for him.”

His past struggles as a starter don’t compare to the adversity Lopez has faced away from the game with his 9-year-old son, Mikael, battling two chronic autoimmune diseases since birth. With Lopez even needing to step away from the club to be with his son on occasion, the veteran reliever has drawn praise from teammates and coaches for his ability to focus on baseball despite such serious life matters weighing on his heart. Reflecting on that reality brought Hyde — himself a father of three — to tears at his postgame press conference on Sunday.

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Lopez now has the opportunity to celebrate his greatest baseball achievement with Mikael.

“I’ve been thinking a lot,” said Lopez, a 2011 second-round pick out of the Caguas Military Academy in Puerto Rico. “Not just me, [but] it’s my son who’s going to deserve this. He’s the one who’s been motivating me. He’s the one I get here every day to do my job and even my dream.”

With the Orioles having no slam-dunk candidates for the All-Star Game despite such dramatic improvement in the standings this season, Lopez was their only player to be selected, marking the fifth straight time Baltimore will have the minimum one representative for the exhibition. He’s the first Orioles reliever to receive the nod since Zack Britton and Brad Brach were selected in 2016, the last time Baltimore sent multiple players to the All-Star Game.

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