After mental health break, former Orioles pitcher Jorge López is learning how to handle stress

Published 7/8/2023 5:30 a.m. EDT

MINNEAPOLIS — In the days leading up to Jorge López’s decision, it all became too much.

The expectations, which were largely internal, reared the angry heads of self-doubt and bubbling pressure. Each outing turned into so much more, each hit against him a gutting blow. He wanted to succeed, he wanted to help his team, he wanted to perform for his family — and maybe, more than anything, López wanted to prove to himself this is where he belongs.

When those outings went sideways, the frustration spilled out and found outlets in the form of a kick or a punch, taking out his pain on the inanimate objects around him. It was exhausting, a loop he couldn’t halt.

“Sometimes as a player you need a break,” López admitted in the home clubhouse of the Minnesota Twins’ Target Field on Friday. “You’ve got to know when’s the time.”

At first, López didn’t. But the Twins did, and they helped convince López to take time away from his main source of stress. López, a 2022 All-Star for the Orioles, was placed on the 15-day injured list for his mental health, becoming the fourth player in Major League Baseball to receive that designation.

The time away was brief — López was activated after 17 days — but in that time away from high-leverage situations López learned more about himself and the way he handles stress.

The 30-year-old Puerto Rican began therapy and said he will continue to work on himself in those sessions. He’s acquiring better habits to outlet his frustration, and López hopes those skills will help him divert his energy into more positive habits in the future.

The year since Baltimore traded the All-Star at the deadline hasn’t been easy. But now that López is back on the Twins’ active roster, he’s looking forward simply to having more fun again.

“You just continue to get better,” López said. “I used those 15 days to know more about myself and the type of player I want to be. For sure, I want to come in working hard every single day. … Just believe in the process, and everything is going to start going your way. Don’t rush it. Don’t put much pressure — which, already the game brings. We play a tough game.”

On Friday, López pointed into his locker at a box of Legos. It’s a new addition, joining a stash of gloves and sunglasses. In a short time, López learned that diverting his energy toward calming activities such as building with Legos can waylay a negative outburst.

He also reinforced the idea that he’s not alone when he’s on the mound. There are seven players behind him. As a ground-ball pitcher, López said, he wants to lean on his infielders more rather than feeling as though his pitches must be untouchable.

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“You see them making all these plays, the players are phenomenal,” López said. “Just keep faith, keep working with faith and keep believing the process.”

López put together the best concentrated performances of his career with the Orioles. Before the trade, the closer held a 1.68 ERA with 19 saves in 48 1/3 innings. But, after arriving with the Twins, López pitched to a 4.37 ERA in his final 22 2/3 frames of 2022.

López didn’t allow an earned run in his first 12 innings this season, but the campaign began to teeter in May. In his next 15 innings, López allowed 15 earned runs and batters hit .349 against him. The change in fortunes spilled over into self-destructive behavior, and the loop was finally broken with his stint on the injured list.

“I’m tired of hearing, ‘You’ve got good stuff, you’ve got good stuff,’” López said. “And then it’s not that consistent.”

A large part of that is mental. López said he’s heard baseball is 10% talent and 90% mental, and he agrees. Maybe life in general is, too.

López has more on his mind than baseball, of course.

His 10-year-old son, Mikael, has battled several autoimmune disorders since birth. Mikael spends much of his life in the hospital with López’s wife, Karla, his primary caretaker. And, as López pitches in Minneapolis, Karla and Mikael are in Cincinnati, where his son receives much of his care.

There have been joyous moments, such as when Mikael saw his father pitch at Fenway Park in 2022, the first time he has been in person to a game in three years. Mikael joined his father at the All-Star Game later in the year.

Still, that honor weighed on López at the same time.

“I felt like I didn’t deserve it,” López said. “There were so many guys who were really good as well. They say my name and I had a good time. It was good for my son. For me, it was tiring.”

Much of the last year has felt that way — tiring.

But López is grateful he took the step away from baseball now. He came back in time to face his former club, and he spent much of Friday afternoon catching up with the Orioles coaching staff and his former teammates.

He hugged manager Brandon Hyde. He laughed with his old pitching coaches. He smiled — genuinely smiled.

But once the first pitch was thrown Friday, López knew his competitive spirit would blaze again. He’s working to channel it in better ways, to find outlets for the frustration that would swell uncontrollably if outcomes went against him. But there will always be a hunger for winning, and as long as he approaches it in a better way he’ll be all right.

“I’m looking forward to beat their ass,” López laughed. “That’s what I’m looking for right now.”