By Jack Savage
When the moment comes to step onto the mound, University of Illinois Chicago’s Cristian Lopez takes off his hat and stares at the four phrases he has written on the inside of the bill.
Cutthroat mentality. No fatigue. PVO (positive vibes only). Dance with fear.
Each phrase embodies Lopez and his journey, and helps remind him who he is and how he got here. How many athletes can change positions at the collegiate level, move across the country and battle a life-threatening injury, all while navigating a pandemic? Yet, that’s exactly what Lopez has endured on his journey.
Much like his start on April 10, in which he led the Flames to a 2-1 series-clinching victory over the Oakland Golden Grizzlies, going seven innings while surrendering only one run, Lopez just kept battling. Pitching in and out of jams all game long — that’s been his mantra all his life.
From community college catcher to starting Division I pitcher, the road for the Southern California native has been filled with twists at nearly every turn. In 2017, Lopez began his college career at Cypress Community College back home in Orange County, California, as a catcher. However, he wasn’t seeing much playing time and began to get discouraged.
“I felt like my opportunity to play at the next level was slowly closing,” Lopez said.
His future at catcher looked bleak, and he knew he needed to make a change. While he pitched sparingly in high school, Lopez knew that moving back on the mound might be his only chance if he wanted his career to continue. Lopez’s younger brother Nick wasn’t surprised in the least when his brother made the switch.
“I always knew he had a good arm,” the younger Lopez said. “We grew up in a baseball household and played everywhere. I saw firsthand the type of player Cristian is. He’s always so calm and collected with his game, the position change didn’t surprise me at all. He worked his ass off.”
After three seasons at Cypress, Cristian Lopez committed to UIC, trading in his flip-flops for snow boots. The work Lopez put in to make it to the next level had finally paid off. He arrived at UIC ready to compete for a starting role and was ready to seize the moment … and then the world shut down.
“When COVID hit, I went back home to train and prepare for the (MLB) draft,” Lopez said. “I was optimistic I would be able to sign that year, but unfortunately it didn’t happen. I got real down on myself but stayed the course and returned to UIC.”
COVID-19 cut short Lopez’s first season at UIC, but nearly a year later, he battled back and earned that coveted starting role in the rotation he had been after for so long. It was all coming together for the powerful right-hander — until doctors found three blood clots in his throwing shoulder.
A pinched vein in Lopez’s right shoulder caused the blood clots to form, threatening his life if they were to move any closer to his lungs or heart. Surgeons had to partially shave down one of his ribs, remove parts of the muscles in his neck and then inflate the vein that was getting pinched to make sure it wouldn’t occur again. It was a complicated procedure that made for a grueling rehab.
“After my surgery, I felt like I’d never get back to where I was again,” Lopez said. “I was in so much pain afterwards, I came close to not even wanting to come back. But I had a lot of support from my family, friends and teammates, who really helped me through it all.”
Along with his younger brother Nick, Cory Moore — a teammate of Lopez’s at Cypress and now at UIC — was another constant figure in Lopez’s life who has played an integral role in his journey. They have traveled a similar path, with Moore being by Lopez’s side through all of his highs and lows over the last couple of years. Moore knows exactly what Lopez is made of.
“Cristian shows up every day and just works,” Moore said. “He never shows up in a bad mood. He busted his ass in junior college to get himself out and has never had anything handed to him. He’s had to go out and take it. Day in and day out, he grinds.”
While UIC has stumbled to a 12-17 record at the halfway point of the season, Lopez won’t let that steal his joy, as he puts everything he’s gone through into perspective.
“I just try to have fun and keep it light,” Lopez said. “I try not to let the moment get bigger than it is.”
“Cristian could’ve quit playing multiple times throughout the last couple years with everything he’s gone through,” Nick Lopez said. “But he didn’t. I’m so proud that he’s still playing and continuing to live the dreams we both dreamt of as kids.”
From a 17-year-old boy who could barely sniff the starting lineup at a junior college, to the starting pitcher on a Division I team who overcame a life-threatening injury, Cristian Lopez will continue to “not let the moment get bigger than it is.”