Appropriately in Phoenix, Vazquez rises again

Originally Published: May 12, 2005
By Eric Neel | ESPN.com

With apologies to my friend Rob Neyer, let me kick it off like this …

Consider Pitcher X.

Through the first three starts of the season, Pitcher X was ugly – couldn't get out of the sixth, couldn't help but give up five or more runs a night.

In those three starts (in two of which he took the loss), he was exactly what you had come to believe he was: finished, a one-time stopper turned reckless fire starter, a gaping hole on a sinking ship. You weren't thinking of him. Nobody was.

But then came the next five starts, between April 20 and Wednesday night, in which Pitcher X has flipped the script completely, putting up the following gaudy numbers: four wins over 38 innings, 34 strikeouts, four walks and just five earned runs.

In those five starts, he's been riding in the way-back machine, becoming the pitcher he once was, rediscovering his command, velocity, confidence and general wickedness.

So here's the question: Any idea who he is?

I'll give you a hint: Brian Cashman knows who he is. In fact, you can bet Cashman is thinking about him even as we speak.

That's right, Pitcher X is Javier Vazquez.

Javier Vazquez
Win McNamee/Getty ImagesVazquez went 11-15 with a 4.42 ERA in 33 starts last season for the Diamondbacks.

Surprised?

You ought to be.

Because not only are we talking about the Javier Vazquez who started the season giving out hits and runs like they were candy, but we're also talking about the same Javier Vazquez who posted a 6.92 ERA after the All-Star break last year. We're talking about the same Javier Vazquez who seemed to wilt like warm spinach under the glare of the Yankee Stadium sun. We're talking about the same Javier Vazquez who was so rattled and ineffective that Joe Torre decided he wasn't worthy of even one ALCS start last fall, relegating him instead to mopping up after messes Kevin Brown made in Games 3 and 7.

Except, if the last three weeks are any indication, we're not talking about that Javier Vazquez at all. We're talking about version 1.0, the guy Cashman and The Boss went after in the winter of '03 in the first place. The guy good for 230-plus innings and 240-plus strikeouts for the woeful Expos the season before that. The guy who was once quietly one of the best pitchers in all of baseball.

That guy just might be back, and if he is, forget Brian Roberts and never mind about Ozzie and "SmartBall," this is the big news of the season so far.

The D-Backs are 20-15 right now. You can credit Troy Glaus' 10 home runs and 27 RBI, and you can credit Brandon Lyon's 13 saves and 1.56 ERA, but you also have to give a lot of credit to Vazquez and his surprising return to form.

Who'da thunk it?

The Yankees were so sure he was done they were willing to pay Arizona $9 million of his current salary (as part of the Randy Johnson deal) to take him off their hands. Arizona was so concerned that he might never be back that it insisted on that money and on Brad Halsey's (currently 2-1 with a 3.46 ERA) being part of the deal for the Unit.

Expectations were low. Vazquez was a long-shot bet.

And now it looks like he's going to pay off, maybe pay off big, for a team that looked ace-less just a couple months ago.

What's been the difference? Was he hurting last year? He's said no. Had some glitch developed in his mechanics that he's now straightened out? Could be. But maybe the most intriguing possibility is that he's simply comfortable again.

Thanks to Sinatra ("If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere"), we tend to think of New York as the be-all and end-all. The fans are tough, the media is relentless. If you succeed there, you're legit. If you don't succeed there, you're somehow incomplete.

Javier Vazquez
Vazquez was an All-Star the first half of last season before it all came apart in New York.

It's bunk, really. It's an idea New York made up about New York.

We don't know why Vazquez has turned it around, but we know he was a terrific pitcher in Montreal, a mightily struggling pitcher in the second half of last year in New York, and now what looks like a pretty terrific pitcher again in Phoenix.

There could be a dozen reasons for that, but if, if, he's a guy who took a shot at the big city and figured out he likes it better in a smaller, more laid-back market, what's wrong with that? In fact, isn't there a whole lot right with that? Isn't there something nice about a guy's finding the sweet spot, the ideal combination of opportunity and environment, such that he can perform at his very best?

In New York now, Vazquez is a bum who couldn't hack it, a punch line, a closed chapter in the sad story of the Yankees late-season '04 collapse.

But forget New York for a minute. Think instead about Arizona. Because in Arizona, he's not dead, he's resurrected, he's just getting started. And if you're a fan of the Diamondbacks … heck, if you're a fan of baseball at all, that's a much better story.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.

Eric Neel | email

Page 2 columnist
Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.

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