Kevin Gorman: Felipe Vazquez goes from Pirates’ Nightmare to All-Star dream reliever |
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Kevin Gorman

Felipe Vazquez was still down and out about giving up the game-winning run to the Milwaukee Brewers in the 10th inning Friday night when Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle called the closer into his office the next day.

When Hurdle informed Vazquez that he was chosen to play in the All-Star Game at Progressive Field in Cleveland, the left-hander initially felt even worse that it was coming at the expense of an injured player. Upon learning that Arizona pitcher Zack Greinke pulled out for personal reasons, Vazquez changed his tune.

In earning his second consecutive All-Star selection, Vazquez went from the Pirates’ Nightmare to dream reliever for the National League at the Midsummer Classic.

“It is kind of cool going to an All-Star Game two years in a row,” said Vazquez, who celebrated his 28th birthday on Friday. “Clint cheered me up with that. It was like a late birthday gift. I took it that way, so I’m pretty happy.”

Vazquez had been the most glaring omission among the All-Star selections, and this was before the left-hander earned his 20th save in Sunday’s 6-5 victory over the Brewers. Not only is Vazquez 2-1 with a 2.19 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 37 innings, he regularly touches 100 mph and is averaging a career-best 14.4 strikeouts per nine innings this season.

No wonder Hurdle called Vazquez an exclamation point at the end of games, as his performance is the punctuation.

“I just love the stuff,” Hurdle said. “Every manager gets to look at his own closer, and I get to watch this guy all year. In a perfect world, if the manager got to pick his bullpen and you set up right- and left-handed guys, I think he’d find his way onto just about everybody’s ticket.”

That Vazquez didn’t get picked was silly. He’s one of the best closers in baseball, but rules are rules so every team must be represented at the All-Star Game. After years of benefiting from the rule, the Pirates were shortchanged when Vazquez was bypassed for San Diego’s Kirby Yates (30 saves) and San Francisco’s Will Smith (23 saves).

It also presented a predicament for the Pirates: Does a fourth-place team deserve two All-Stars? If so, does a fourth-place team really need an All-Star closer?

First baseman Josh Bell is deserving of his first All-Star honor, even if he didn’t win the vote to start in the game. By slashing .302/.376/1.024 with 27 home runs and 84 RBIs, Bell flipped the script on the Pirates pitcher known as Flip.

When teammates told Vazquez in spring training that he was expected to go to the All-Star Game every year, he started searching for another Pirates player to join him. Little did he know that it would be Bell, and that Bell would be first to find out.

“Bell started killing it every day, since day one, (so I told him), ‘Now I know who I’m going with. I’m going with you. I’m going with you,’” Vazquez said. “That was our mentality the whole season, ‘Me and you are going. Me and you are going.’ Then he was the one who got elected and I got elected later on. Then (on Saturday) I was like, ‘I told you I’m going to go with you’ when I didn’t know I was going to go with you.”

Whether the Pirates would be willing to go without Vazquez is another story. He’s probably their most valuable trade asset, given his contract (he’s signed for the next two years at $12.5 million, with club options for 2022 and ‘23) and his production (78 saves and 236 strikeouts since 2017).

But those are better reasons for the Pirates to keep Vazquez, who relishes his roles as both the closer and a leader with a killer instinct to finish off NL Central foes. If the Pirates have any hopes of making the playoffs, they need Vazquez.

“I’m trying to show my teammates, I got you,” Vazquez said. “I’m not trying to show the world. I’m trying to be the best that I can be for my teammates. I’m trying to be the best to help my team. If you take care of that, the rest is going to come.”

Vazquez has recorded saves in all but two chances this season, and that shows how delicate the difference is from having a winning record and losing record at the All-Star break. They are one game below .500 at 44-45, but remain contenders for both the NL Central title and a wild-card berth.

That’s what makes the All-Star Game so exciting for Vazquez. It’s his shot to shine on a national stage and show baseball what he can do against the game’s top hitters.

“I haven’t pitched in a postseason game yet, but I think it’s probably the same feeling,” Vazquez said. “It’s not pressure because you’re having fun in an All-Star Game. It doesn’t count toward your stats but … all the fans are there and you’re one of the best pitching against the best of the best.

“It’s fun, really, really fun.”

What would be even more fun is if Vazquez can add an exclamation point to the All-Star Game. In a perfect world, he would then pitch the Pirates into the postseason.

That’s the dream for the Nightmare.

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