March 19, 2009

Vasquez among final Bucs contenders

March 19, 2009

BRADENTON, Fla. - By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com

Throwing strikes might seem the most obvious trait needed from a pitcher at the Major League level. It might just be what lands Virgil Vasquez a spot in the Pirates' rotation at the end of Spring Training.

His chances certainly improved when lefty Tom Gorzelanny was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis on Wednesday morning, removing one of the competitors for the back end of Pittsburgh's starting five. That this move came just a day after Vasquez got knocked around by the Yankees (2 1/3 innings pitched, seven hits, six earned runs) speaks volumes about what the Pittsburgh brain trust feels about the importance of being around the strike zone.

"Since no one's put a stranglehold on the fifth job, we have to project what's going to play [out]," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "We had trouble last year in throwing strikes, and [his control is] what we've been liking from him.

"[Against the Yankees], he threw too many strikes. But he learned the valuable lesson that he has to mix it up and change speeds. On the positive side, he was aggressive and he challenged hitters. If they put the ball in play, 70 percent of the time it will be an out. If there's a walk, 100 percent of the time there [won't be]. Vasquez and [Jeff] Karstens have separated themselves because of that. That was a key factor in our decision."

With Paul Maholm, Zach Duke and Ian Snell locked into the rotation and Ross Ohlendorf with the clear inside track for spot No. 4, it's looking more and more that the No. 5 spot will come down to Vasquez, who was picked up off waivers from the Padres by way of the Red Sox and Tigers, and Karstens, one of the arms acquired by the Pirates in the Xavier Nady deal.

In 2008, the Pirates pitching staff led the National League with 657 walks allowed. This spring, Vasquez has walked three in 7 1/3 innings; Karstens has yielded just one free pass in his 9 2/3 innings of work. Both have received kudos for being generally around the strike zone. For Vasquez against the Yankees, it may have been too much of a good thing.

"I felt I was controlling the ball in the strike zone well, but maybe too much of the strike zone," Vasquez. "I didn't work back and forth well enough [on Tuesday], especially for a lineup like that. I feel like I located well, for the most part. There were a few pitches they got a hold of."

The one thing Vasquez will not do is make too much out of any one outing. He's been down that road and has vowed not to repeat it. Back in 2007, the right-hander had a terrific season for Toledo, the Tigers' Triple-A affiliate. He went 12-5 with a 3.48 ERA, walking only 33 over 155 innings. For his Minor League career, in fact, Vasquez has walked just 1.98 per nine innings. He got a brief taste of the big leagues in 2007 and entered the 2008 season with a legitimate chance to make a big contribution in Detroit.

It didn't happen that way. Vasquez spent all year in Toledo, went 12-12 with a disappointing 4.81 ERA. After the season, the Tigers tried to sneak him through waivers and the Red Sox picked him up. When the Red Sox placed him on waivers in early January, the Padres swooped in. Then it was the Pirates turn when San Diego tried to sneak him through two weeks later. It's enough to make anyone realize things didn't go well, and Vasquez clearly got the message.

"I felt last year, it was my fault, with what happened at the end of the season," Vasquez said. "I had an off-year because of my mental approach to the game, worrying about things I couldn't control, what people thought of me.

"It was in my hands that last year. I was supposed to come in and be one of the guys, and mentally, I took myself out of the race. Now, I've learned that. You have to move forward. The outing against the Yankees is already over. You don't want those numbers, but you can't change it now, so you just have to go to the next one."

It appears that he'll get at least one more outing at the big league level this spring as the competition heats up for the Pirates. Another outing like the one against the Yankees, especially if Karstens continues to throw well, could mean a ticket to Indianapolis for Vasquez. But even if that's the case, Vasquez has made an impression that whatever happens, he's not going to hurt himself with errant command.

"He's intriguing because he does throw strikes and he does have pitches," manager John Russell said. "He just has to have a better mix of them and to utilize what he has.

"I was pleased with how he attacked the zone. It's nice to see him throw strikes. He gets ahead. I think once he starts to use his other pitches, that's going to make him more successful."

That could be music to most pitcher's ears, but Vasquez is trying not to worry too much about what other people think. Not after last year. He figures if he can continue to go out and stay within himself -- and yes, throw strikes -- things will take care of themselves.

"I don't know how they perceive me," Vasquez said. "I've gone out there for most of the spring and I feel like my stuff has been comparable to every guy who's fighting for this spot. I just have to keep doing it. Hopefully, my next start will be up here and I can bounce back. I want to show them how I bounce back, that one start's not the end."

If Vasquez can indeed bounce back, it might be just the beginning.

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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