KANSAS CITY — Pablo Lopez has many memories of watching twins on television as a boy in Venezuela. He grew up a big fan of Johan Santana – like every other young Venezuelan at the time.
On Thursday, he joined Santana as the only Venezuelans to start an opening day doubles game. And Lopez did something even his idol couldn’t do in a Minnesota uniform: win one of those road games.
Armed with a new slider and looking to set the pace for his new team, in his first starting day start, Lopez pitched the Royals for 5.1 innings as part of a shutout of the Twins. 2-0 at Kaufman Field. In the process, Venezuela became the team’s first starter to win away from home on an opening day since Brad Radtke did it in 2003.
“It’s a huge honor to be on any list next to Johan Santana’s name,” Lopez said. “It’s definitely something I’ll remember forever.”
While the Twins could have chosen another one of their starters, they went with Lopez to start his first game of the year after acquiring him in a winter trade with the Marlins for the AL batting champion of Venezuela, Luis Arez.
“I know what the Twins gave up to get me here with the other two,” Lopez said. “But I don’t think it’s pressure. Rather, it acts as motivation. There’s no pressure. It’s like: ‘Okay, the team believes in me. I’m going to take advantage of that.’ That’s what I tried to do.”
That’s exactly what the Twins had in mind…and more.
They already knew what Lopez had to offer when they acquired him from the Marlins. They know he relies heavily on a solid shift (as does Santana). But in the preseason, the pitcher emphasized adding a deep slider to keep opponents guessing. On Thursday, Lopez looked like he had thrown that pitch of a lifetime. He finished with eight while allowing two hits and three walks in that 5 1/2 scoreless stretch.
Lopez threw a changeup as often as a fastball last year, but on Thursday he used a slider rather than a changeup — with disastrous results. He threw 19 times. Royals hitters swung at 11 of them and missed at 8.
“We didn’t bring him here to replace Pablo’s entire career,” Twins manager Rocco Baltelli said. “He does a lot of things well. I would call them little tweaks here and there, maybe one of them is the slider and how you use it.”
And there were results. The Twins wouldn’t have won their first game of the year without Lopez’s solid start.
“We trust Pablo’s pitch,” Minnesota catcher Christian Vasquez said.
Well, now he’s got one more in his arsenal… and that’s pretty cool.