Pablo Lopez spent the All-Star break visiting his girlfriend in Iowa and kept his arm loose by playing catch on a middle school baseball field in the small town of West Liberty, which sits halfway between Muscatine and Iowa City.
The rookie was back under the bright lights on Saturday, though, making his fourth big-league start and taking care of the Tampa Bay Rays in a 3-2 Marlins victory.
“His look is different than you would think for a guy that’s got three or four starts under his belt,” said Marlins manager Don Mattingly. “He’s a pretty composed, got-it-together kid.”
Lopez, 22, might be too young to know that the Marlins are supposed to be bad. But the poised right-hander is one of the reasons they’re playing much better than anyone could have imagined.
The Marlins’ latest win -- their fourth straight -- improved their record since June 5 to 23-18. The only National League teams with more wins during that span are the Dodgers (25) and Cubs (24).
“I think right now you’re starting to see a young team that is slowly but surely learn how to finish games,” said veteran outfielder Cameron Maybin, who homered in Saturday’s win. “We’re finishing a lot better right now.”
With Lopez working, they started well on Saturday, too.
Lopez retired the first nine batters he faced before allowing a leadoff homer in the fourth to Joey Wendle. But it was the lone blemish on the pitching line of a young prospect the Marlins acquired in last year’s trade with Seattle for David Phelps.. Lopez completed six innings and allowed just three hits, striking out six while walking one.
“Their guy pitched good,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “A lot of inconsistencies to the fastball, which made it good. he cut it, he sank it. I’m not sure if it was by design or what, but you could tell it had a lot of late life through the zone and nobody seemed to gauge it well.”
Said Lopez: “I felt pretty good out there.”
The Marlins are feeling pretty good these days, as well.
They have now won nine of their past 13 series and, with Saturday’s win, captured the season series against the Rays with their fourth win in five meetings.
The Marlins opened a 2-0 lead in the fourth on Martin Prado’s RBI double and a Miguel Rojas ground ball out.
After Wendle’s homer sliced the lead to a run, Maybin gave the Marlins a bit of breathing room with his third home run, a solo shot off Hunter Wood.
Kyle Barraclough, who was unavailable Friday due to an upset stomach, gave up a solo homer in the ninth to J-Man Choi but preserved the win for his 10th save.
But Lopez was the story Saturday.
“He’s just going to keep getting better,” Mattingly said of Lopez, who graduated first in his high school class and was accepted to medical school when he was 16. “He’s so sharp that I think he’s going to learn from every start. Anything that happens to him out there, I think he’s going to learn from it and he’s just going to keep getting better.”