SAN FRANCISCO — Hours before they help the Giants close out a win, Javier Lopez and Sergio Romo can be found enthusiastically shagging fly balls in the outfield. Lopez will often climb the wall in an attempt to rob a teammate of a batting practice homer, while Romo prefers to put himself in position for a fun or interesting catch on the grass.
Last season, all that practice was nearly put to test during a game.
Lopez and Romo were put on alert during two regular season games and told that one of them could play the outfield for a batter while the other one came in for the right matchup. It would be a relatively simple transaction on paper: Lopez, who held lefties to a microscopic .112 average, could face a lefty, go to left field as Romo came in to face a right-handed hitter, and then pop back on the mound to face the upcoming lefty. Likewise, Romo — who held righties to a .170 average — could be the one going back and forth.
“It almost happened,” Romo said, smiling wide. “It’s super-cool that they thought about it, and it literally almost happened. It actually is an option. The confidence (the coaches) have in us as athletes is pretty cool.”
Lopez actually has played the outfield before in a major league game, but not for an ideal reason. He was with the Red Sox in 2009 and they were getting knocked around down in Tampa Bay one night in late April. Lopez came on for the bottom of the eighth, and after a groundout he gave up two singles, a walk and two doubles. Right fielder Jonathan Van Every moved to the mound and Lopez went out to right.
For fans, that kind of swap livens up a blowout. For Lopez, who left the park with a 9.39 ERA, it was a nightmare. He was designated for assignment 10 days later.
“That year was a very tough year for me,” he said. “I had come off a complete season with the Red Sox and had a really great year in 2008. To have that happen in 2009 was very tough, it was a very tough time. That’s probably like the worst time in my life baseball-wise.
“I mean, it’s embarrassing to play the outfield. I’m sorry, it’s embarrassing. And then to have to come in and watch your own run get cashed in, it’s a tough time.”
Seven years later, Lopez is continuing a run as an integral piece for a team aiming to contend. He wouldn’t have minded playing the outfield last year. It would have been a sign of how valuable he is against left-handers.
“It would have been more of a strategy as opposed to just trying to finish out a ballgame,” he said.
Lopez, 38, has three even-year rings with the Giants, but 2015 was possibly his best individual season on the field. He tied a career-high with 77 appearances and posted a 1.60 ERA and 0.89 WHIP. Only Royals closer Wade Davis (.144) held hitters to a lower batting average than Lopez (.145), and lefties had virtually no chance, totaling just three doubles and seven singles in 89 at-bats.
Lopez thinks last season may have been his bests based simply on how steady he was. June was the only month in which he allowed multiple runs.
“I was proud of the fact that I was very consistent,” he said. “It wasn’t that I was hot for three months, I was pretty even keel all the way through and that’s always my goal, to try to maintain it from month to month.”
Lopez is a free agent at the end of the season, and he looks more than capable of pitching a few years longer, putting a successful decade between that return to the minors and the end of his career. He still views the 2009 stretch as a turning point and credits Bob Tewksbury — a former big leaguer and current sports psychologist for the Red Sox — for helping him bounce back.
“I was trying to find positives and one of them was working with Bob Tewksbury at the time,” he said. “It gave me a chance to kind of refocus on some goals. A lot of those things kind of help me, even to this day, with my mindset and mind frame going into games. Before I was a little scatterbrained in a sense, and now I have certain phrases that I like to use and things that kind of keep me locked in. It all kind of started then.”
It’s hard these days to picture Lopez as scatterbrained in any respect. He is renowned by teammates for being smooth and unflappable, which leaves little doubt that he could make the most of a one-batter stint in the outfield. It’s a rarely-used move (the Astros tried it with lefty Wesley Wright in 2011) the Giants will keep deep in the back pocket, maybe for a night when they need to save a pitcher in extra innings, or the team is trailing and opts to get creative while burning outs.
“I’d be out there with a huge smile on my face,” Romo said. “We’d play left, but if you want a cannon in the outfield, I can play right.”
Lopez wouldn’t mind a second crack at the outfield. Two batters after he was moved to right in that 2009 game a line drive was hit to the gap in right-center, close enough that Lopez briefly considered diving for the ball. Does he wish he would have laid out?
“Looking back, I do,” he said. “It was my runner at second base. I should have tried to save my own run.”