June 29, 2009

Former Gaucho Vasquez fans seven in first victory

June 29, 2009

By Chuck Finder, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Three times, he was waived this past offseason.

Once, he was let go by the Detroit Tigers that drafted him and gave him a big league break in 2007 ... lasting all of five games. In January, the Boston Red Sox cut him loose ... after a whopping 73 days. Then, his home-state San Diego Padres claimed him off baseball's scrap pile.

And that relationship lasted 17 days.

Funny thing about baseball connections. Former UC Santa Barbara pitcher Virgil Vasquez made his Pirates debut last night, and it seems guaranteed to last considerably longer than hours. Or days. Or maybe even weeks.

A rookie summoned from Class AAA to fill the starting rotation void left by an Ian Snell who asked to go the other direction, down to Indianapolis, Vasquez last night promptly recorded his first major league victory and equaled his previous major-league total of seven strikeouts all while lifting the Pirates to a 5-3 defeat of Kansas City before 18,458 inside PNC Park.

He made quick work of the Royals and concurrently gave the Pirates their first three-game interleague winning streak in some 59 such games and four years: 2 hours, 26 minutes. All the same, the game lingered that long because Matt Capps tortured the new guy a little by allowing a home run and then two baserunners before completing his 17th save. Maybe that was to give fellow reliever John Grabow ("I got him good, man") enough time to fill a tin plate with shaving cream for the ritual face-full of foam that Vasquez received at a post-broadcast interview.

"He's the quickest pitcher I've ever seen," marveled shortstop Jack Wilson, who plunked one of the three Pirates homers -- tying their season high -- struck by some of the lighter bats in the lineup, meaning Wilson (his third of the season), Nyjer Morgan (his second) and Jason Jaromillo (his third, but his second in three games). "Once I looked down, and the next thing I know, the catcher has it. He did a fantastic job."

"He threw a lot of strikes," added Pirates manager John Russell, who, along with general manager Neal Huntington, took a shining in spring training to this 27-year-old right-hander who nearly made the rotation out of Florida. "A lot of first-pitch strikes. Attacked the zone down. When you do that, good things happen. For his first start up here, I thought he did an outstanding job."

Vasquez admittedly labored a bit in the second, when he gave Kansas City a 2-0 lead on a leadoff walk to Mark Teahan and consecutive doubles to Albert Callaspo and Miguel Olivo.

"I started thinking a little bit," Vasquez said. "Then I went back to my game plan."

That blueprint was, simply: "Throw strike one and stay ahead of the hitters so they don't know what's coming." It worked from there. He induced Tony Pena Jr., son of that longtime Pirates catcher, into a ground ball that turned into a wacky shortstop-to-third-baseman-to-second-baseman double play, ending with Freddy Sanchez tagging out Olivo in a rundown and then outracing Andy LaRoche -- who would've taken a throw if one came -- back to second base to dive to get out Pena there.

"Everybody on the team was running to second," Sanchez said.

Thereafter, Vasquez got out 13 of the final 15 Royals he faced, including 10 of the final 11. He allowed a Billy Butler single with two outs in the third and a two-out double in the sixth to Jose Guillen, a onetime Pirates outfielder. The rest of that sixth, Vazquez struck out the side. After that 2-0 deficit, he threw 45 strikes among his next 63 pitches and got ahead in 11 of the next 15 counts, including his final seven.

He finished with seven in his six innings with just two earned runs and four hits. By contrast, he had seven strikeouts in 16.2 innings over five games with the 2007 Tigers ... and seven home runs, too.

The Pirates claimed him off waivers and told to lay off the slider. He went to Class AAA Indianapolis, this same pitcher whom the Toledo Mud Hens in the same International League didn't use in the 2007 playoffs, and he was told to work without the net of his slider. His fastball, curveball and changeup brought him back to the big leagues, and Snell's self-imposed rehab assignment figures to keep Vasquez here awhile. So long as he pitches like last night. Oddly enough, in his PNC Park and Pirates debut, he felt "the most comfortable I've ever been."

"It's great to get another opportunity up here," Vasquez said of the majors. "With three teams in the offseason. ... I end up here. ... I'm really happy."

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com.