Gold Rush: Swinging for the Fences
June 1, 2012
This article was originally published in the May 2012 issue of Gold Rush.
By Jay Reddick
Carlos Lopez was destined to be a hitter.
It's easy to see now that Wake Forest's starting first baseman has skill, but if you had happened by his Boynton Beach, Fla., home one night during his teenage years, you might have been able to predict his future.
Your first big clue would be the batting cage out back. OK, the kid hits a little bit. But look closer. What's that in the garage? A taut net, attached to the ceiling and walls, with a hitter's tee in front of it. Carlos and his brother, just swinging away, the ping of the bat echoing off the walls. Isn't it close to midnight? Then you'd hear the neighbors grumbling about the noise, and you'd know -- this goes on all the time.
It's that hard work that has made Lopez into one of the ACC's top hitters during his senior season.
Lopez said his life as an athlete started when he was about 10 years old. His father, Mike, played football at Brown University and wanted his sons to play sports.
"My dad is a hard-working man, and he valued that," Lopez said. "He had us doing push-ups and sit-ups to get in shape, and as we got older, he spent hours working on our swings."
As it became obvious that both Carlos and his brother, Mike, were gifted baseball players, Mike put up a batting cage in the backyard so the kids could hit more often. But as the practices grew later and later, the neighbors started to talk about how loud it was getting. So Miguel devised a compromise.
"It was handmade," Carlos Lopez said. "My dad took a heavy net and screwed it into the ceiling, so we could go in there, turn the lights on and go as late as we wanted, until midnight or later -- the walls silenced the ping of the bat a little bit. Of course, it destroyed the garage."
Lopez said that the support of his father helped both him and his brother, who became a catcher at Cornell, succeed in baseball. Deacons coach Tom Walter agrees.
"Carlos has a great set of parents," Walter said. "They've been very supportive, but they do a good job of balancing that with being firm."
Lopez has been a fixture in the Deacons' lineup, when healthy, since he got here, but he hasn't always been easy to find. From the beginning, he has been a guy who could be plugged into multiple positions, with stints at first base, third base, in right field and as the team's designated hitter.
"I was lucky enough to get playing time as a freshman and contribute," Lopez said. "I had good streaks and bad, but just getting that opportunity helped me gain confidence."
As a younger player, Lopez even got on the mound. He pitched in Little League and even a little bit in high school but knew all along it wasn't for him.
"I pitched just because I had one of the better arms, but I didn't always know where the ball was going," Lopez said.
During his first three years at Wake Forest, he was a solid hitter with obvious power, but this year he has taken it to another level. He said that some swing adjustments have helped him, but more than that, just a change in mental attitude.
"As I've gained more experience facing pitchers, I've gotten a better feel for them," Lopez said. "Previously, I had some trouble reading certain pitches, but now I know what to expect. It helps to slow the game down."
Walter pinpoints the reason even better: patience.
"He's much more disciplined," Walter said. "In years past, his biggest thing was strike-zone discipline. He would chase bad pitches and get into disadvantage counts. Now, he's seeing much better, and he's much more patient. He always had God-given ability and good power, but he's becoming a thinking-man's hitter. He's really matured."
Lopez's contributions helped the Deacons to one of the best stretches in school history -- 15 consecutive wins from Feb. 24 to March 14. During the streak, he went 22 for 50 (a .440 average) with six home runs and 25 RBIs, with a slugging percentage of .920. He calls it one of the best times he ever had playing baseball.
"We just showed up every day expecting to win," Lopez said. "Losing was not in our minds. We fell behind? Whatever. We knew we could come back. Relaxed and confident -- it felt like how baseball should be."
The wins haven't always come that easily this year, but Lopez said that the team still carries just enough of that swagger to get through it.
"The streak told us that we have what it takes to do anything," Lopez said. "We have the memory of winning 15 straight. We have the memory of beating Florida State when they were No. 1. We know it's there, and we just have to get it back."
Lopez said he wants to close his college career by leading Wake Forest into an NCAA regional, but his baseball life probably won't end there. Walter said that there's "no doubt" that Lopez will get a chance to play pro ball.
"He can hit. That's the thing he does best," Walter said. "He's versatile in the field, and that will certainly help, but his bat is what's going to carry him."
Carlos Lopez, professional hitter? Sounds like a good career option.
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