For Vasquez, Hope Springs Eternal Again

Feb. 12, 2009

By MARK PATTON NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER

Virgil Vasquez's baseball career was left up the air so long this off-season that Monday's journey to spring training made perfect sense:

He spent one full day flying from Santa Barbara to Florida, and still couldn't get there.

The 26-year-old pitcher wound up stranded in Charlotte, N.C., dining at a gas station, after he missed the last connecting flight to Bradenton.

"I had a banana and water, some nuts and a Kellogg's bar," Vasquez said.

But it didn't kill his hunger to get started, six years after the Detroit Tigers drafted him out of UCSB in the seventh round of the 2003 Baseball Draft.

"My mindset is that it's my turn now, so let's do it," he said.

"I'm ready to go. Game on."

Vasquez finished last season pitching for the Tigers' Triple-A farm club in Toledo. He's changed organizations three times since then ó going from Detroit to Boston on Oct. 28, then to San Diego on Jan. 9, and finally to Pittsburgh on Jan. 27.

Each time, the club exposed Vasquez to the other clubs after bumping him off their 40-man roster ó the Red Sox so they could get Brad Penney, and the Padres so they could sign catcher Henry Blanco.

"It can weigh on you, if you let it," he said. "But you can also look at it in the sense that all those teams took an interest in you, and liked what they saw.

"The Padres said they really wanted me to clear waivers, and that if I did I could still come to spring training with the same opportunity to fight for the fifth spot in their rotation."

But the Pirates, who have declared open competition for all five of their starting pitcher slots, claimed Vasquez two weeks ago. He met manager John Russell and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan at Pirate City on Wednesday, two days before pitchers and catchers are due to arrive.

Late and early, all at the same time.

"The only thing they've told me is that they like what they've seen of me, and want me to come in and fight for a spot," he said. "They said they've watched me the last few years, and that if it doesn't happen this spring, I'll still be a starter at Triple-A and one of the next guys up."

The timing seems right: The right time with the right team.

Vasquez was a hot prospect at Toledo in 2007 with a 12-5 record and 127 strikeouts, just 33 walks and a 3.48 earned run average. The Tigers called him up that summer for five big-league appearances, which included three starts.

But he returned to Toledo last summer and never made it back to Detroit, going 12-12 with a 4.81 ERA.

"I felt I was ready," Vasquez said, "but there were a few things that were out of my control, and I really let it affect the way I was competing."

Pirates' general manager Neal Huntington said Vasquez caught his eye in 2007.

"He is a guy that we think has the chance to be a major league starter, or if not, then could be a reliever down the road," he said.

"For now, he provides some more depth for our system.

"Obviously, he had a down year last year. But if we can get him to where he was two years ago, then we really like the depth he could bring."

Vasquez said he got of my element last summer while trying to prove himself to the Tigers.

"What I have to do now is just go out and throw strikes, because I know in my heart I can do it," he said. "Just do what I do and let them see what I can do, and I'll be fine."

Vasquez lived in Mission Canyon during the off-season with former Santa Barbara High and UCSB teammate Ryan Spilborghs of the Colorado Rockies, as well as Garrett Olson, a former pitching rival from Cal Poly who is now with the Seattle Mariners.

"Garrett got moved a lot the last few months, too - the Baltimore Orioles traded him to the Chicago Cubs, and then he was traded again to Seattle," Vasquez said. "It got pretty crazy at our place."

All three train locally with the Peak Performance Project (P3).

"I feel stronger, more flexible, and with more leg drive," Vasquez said. "I developed a lot of things in my body during the off-season, and it's opening up some things for me now."

He was hoping to give them a test-drive while starting in UCSB's alumni game on Saturday, but wound up just throwing a bullpen session after the contest was rained out.

"I was really bummed about that," he said. "One of their hitters sat in while I was throwing my bullpen and I told him, 'I wanted to face you guys so bad - I was gearing up throughout the whole offseason to throw in this game.'"

UCSB coach Bob Brontsema did get a good enough peek to say that Vasquez passed the five-minute eye test.

"He looks great," he said. "He always looks like he's in good physical condition. He's a specimen, physically, and he was throwing real loose and easy."

The off-season was bittersweet for the 6-foot-3 right-hander, with the passing of his grandfather, Virgil Vasquez Jr., on Christmas Eve.

He had suffered a stroke on Thanksgiving Day of 2003.

"It was really sad - obviously he was the man," said Vasquez, who had been known by his middle name of Matt before deciding to go with his given name of Virgil to honor his grandfather. "He was my hero."

He now must acclimate to a new family in Pirate City, although he did cross paths with many of the club's players, coaches and staff during his six seasons in the minor leagues.

His landlord tried to make him feel at home, picking him up at the airport after his arduous journey.

"She also gave me a tour of the place and even drove me to the field for my first day," Vasquez said. "She's been very nice and kind to me."

And after getting passed between four teams in just four months, a homey feeling was right where his heart wanted to be.

Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail: mpatton@newspress.com

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