April 3, 2009

Living the Dream : Vasquez: The Buc doesn' t stop here

April 3, 2009

The Florida coast is overrun by the young and the restless this time of year, but not in Bradenton Beach.

There is no spring break in the preseason home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

A roll call of hot pitching prospects found that a little wildness there quickly earns them a trip back to the minor leagues.

Santa Barbara' s Virgil Vasquez is 26 but not wild. He' s walked only 185 batters in 840 minor-league innings the last six years.

And he stuck with the Pirates' major-league club all the way until Wednesday - just five days before their season opener.

"This was the longest I' ve ever stayed in the big-league camp," said Vasquez, who was picked in the seventh round of the 2003 draft by the Detroit Tigers. "It' s been one of those spring trainings where you just know in your mind that you belong, and that you can make a positive influence on and off the field."

Pittsburgh took a long look at the former Santa Barbara High and UCSB star before sending him down to Triple-A - with hints of a future call-up.

"A lot is made of April 6, and the reality is that this bullpen, this rotation, our bench, even our lineup, it could look very different as we get into the middle of April, the middle of May, the middle of June," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We have a lot of players who have to keep their jobs.

"We have depth. We have challengers this year, and that' s a good thing for us as an organization."

Pittsburgh considered Vasquez a long-shot when it claimed him off waivers on Jan. 26, although one of the front-office executives - Vasquez wouldn' t say who - gave him a pep talk early in spring training.

"He' d seen me before, and he told me, You' re my dark horse, Virg,' " Vasquez said. "I told him, Well, I' m going to make a difference this year.' He said, Don' t make a difference, just make the team.' "

Vasquez came close. The No. 5 spot in the club' s starting rotation wound up as a duel between Vasquez and Jeff Karstens, another command artist who had a 4.03 ERA in nine starts with Pittsburgh last year.

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

It' s all been fun this spring for the un-wild one, even with Wednesday' s demotion.

"I love it here," Vasquez said after dueling Toronto ace Roy Halladay in his final big league camp start on Friday. "I live in this little seven-story apartment building right on the river with a restaurant next door. It' s perfect. I have a pool and a movie theater in there.

"I go home and I can relax, and that' s what I want. A comfortable bed."

He was set up in the apartment of Pirates' outfielder Jeff Salazar by Ryan Spilborghs, his former Santa Barbara High and UCSB teammate.

"Salazar is Spilly' s best friend from the Rockies," Vasquez said. "Sally is a great roommate. A great friend. We were close from the first day, and he has a great place.

"I like to look out my window and see some water. Sit on my deck. I cook myself some dinner, and that' s how I like to go home and relax and get my sleep.

"I' m a huge sleep guy. I' m worthless without my sleep."

Vasquez admitted to a little restlessness midway through spring training when a sore arm restricted his innings. The New York Yankees pounded him a few weeks ago for six runs during a 2 1/3-inning stint - the big reason why his spring earned-run average is at 7.62.

"I was just throwing fastballs for two innings," he recalled. "I was locating in and out well, but not up and down."

Vasquez added some velocity during an offseason of training with Dr. Marcus Elliott' s Peak Performance Project.

"I worked at P3 with Marcus and got some hip flexor work done," he said. "We did some new things, some rotational work, just worked on driving off the ground and keeping my back foot on the ground as long as possible.

"The hitters will tell me if it' s working. So far, more often than not, it has been working."

Vasquez' s fastball has been clocked as high as 94 mph this spring, but he knew that alone wouldn' t get it done on Friday against an explosive Toronto team during Fireworks Night at McKechnie Field.

"They have an amazing lineup," he said. "My game plan was to throw off-speed pretty early in the count, and make my fast ball better - just read the bats and pitch to what you see, because I was just throwing in my last outing.

"I got some work done in a minor league game five days ago, and that went well. I got some feeling back. I got that calmness."

He got some measure of revenge against the Yankees, pitching a five- inning shutout against their Single-A team early last week.

Vasquez wound up losing Friday' s duel against Halladay, but only two Blue Jays hurt him during his 5 2/3 innings. Second baseman Brad Emaus hit a solo home run and an RBI double, while outfielder Travis Snider also had a run-scoring double. Vasquez allowed only two other hits and no additional runs.

The meat of Toronto' s order, from No. 3 to No. 6 - Alex Rios, Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay and Scott Rolen - went 2-for-10 against him.

"They have some Hall of Famers there, and it was fun to face those guys," Vasquez said. "I had no jitters, no nervousness. Just went out, me and Doomee (catcher Ryan Doumit), and it was fun."

But now he' ll be working with a new catcher as the No. 1 starter at Triple-A Indianapolis. And although the Pirates resisted the temptation of keeping Vasquez as a long reliever so he could keep his rhythm as a starter, the former Don and Gaucho knows there is no guarantee of the first call-up.

"It' s whomever is pitching well," he said. "If I go down and I have a seven (ERA) and another guy has a four, or whatever, then they' ll go with him. That' s how I would want it. I want you to call the best guy up.

"That' s the way it was with the Tigers, and I loved it. It should be the guy who deserves it and is working and getting it done. Whatever happens, happens."

That' s the way he approaches pitching now, too.

"It was a huge lesson for me last year, trying to prove to this manager, to that hitting coach, to this GM - it messed me up," Vasquez said. "I' m on the mound and thinking about a lot of other stuff, and what' s right in front of you gets taken away."

Vasquez was a top prospect for the Tigers in 2007, going 12-5 with a 3.48 ERA in Triple-A. He was called up to Detroit for five appearances that summer.

But his phone in Toledo never rang last year while he went 12-12 with a 4.81 ERA.

The new start that began in Bradenton will continue in Indianapolis, and maybe end up in Pittsburgh.

"I' m really happy here," Vasquez said. "It' s positive. I love being around positive people, and the clubhouse is good.

"I love (pitching coach Joe) Kerrigan. He' s awesome to work with. A lot of pitching coaches are about results, but he cares about the plan and the approach and the process. He tells me, Don' t short the process, because it' ll come back to bite you.' "

Those will be words to pitch by this month in Indianapolis.

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

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