Javy's had it here, and that's no bull
Yankee Stadium is simply too hostile a work environment for scuffling right-hander
NEW YORK -- Right now, Javier Vazquez's relationship with Yankees fans is about as solid as one of Liz Taylor's marriages. It's about as cordial as a brunch with Sarah Palin and Katie Couric, about as friendly as a chat between Lloyd Blankfein and a congressional committee.
Vazquez is about as safe on the Yankee Stadium mound as a torero working in a hostile bullring, faced with an angry bull and a vicious crowd throwing seat cushions at him, hoping he will trip and land on one of the horns.
Luckily, Vazquez is in no danger of being gored, merely suffering the cuts from 45,000 boos.
Watching him work Saturday afternoon against the Central Division doormat Chicago White Sox, and listening to him talk afterward in the Yankees clubhouse, and watching his eyes darting around the room with the haunted expression of a man being followed by the police, you were left with one strong impression: Javier Vazquez can't work here anymore.
I know it's only a month into the season, and only five starts into a second Yankees career that Vazquez desperately hoped would wipe away the memory of his first one. And I know that his track record is strong, even if most of it was accumulated in the National League, against lineups with the built-in breather of facing the pitcher every three innings or so.
But listening to the crowd at Yankee Stadium on Saturday; understanding that its patience was short to begin with; and realizing, a mere eight pitches into the game, that 45,000 people were not only waiting for him to fail but expecting him to, made it obvious. Right now, Javier Vazquez is toiling in the unfriendliest of workplaces, the home ballpark that he can no longer call home.
In truth, Vazquez has brought much of this on himself. His two outings at Yankee Stadium have ranged from poor to atrocious, with his three-inning, five-run, three-homer shelling at the hands of the lowly Sox decidedly at the bottom of the scale.
Vazquez did not take the loss. That honor went to David Robertson, who left two runners on base in the seventh inning; both scored when Damaso Marte allowed a double to A.J. Pierzynski, accounting for the tying and winning runs.
But the way Vazquez performed, minus stuff or confidence, rubbed off on his team. By the time the fourth inning rolled around, as normally unflappable performers such as Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano were kicking the ball around like Little Leaguers, it was obvious that Javier Vazquez had accomplished the unthinkable.
Instead of the Yankees raising him to their level, he had dragged the defending World Series champions down to his.
"There's no doubt about it: He's scuffling, and we have to find a way to get him back on track," manager Joe Girardi said, as if it were a revelation when, in fact, it was merely an overdue admission.
And soon, the Yankees were scuffling along with Vazquez. When Curtis Granderson pulled up lame with a potentially disastrous groin strain in the sixth, when Robertson imploded in the seventh, when the offense sputtered to a halt against two Chicago relievers after their seventh-inning rally, it all felt kind of inevitable, like the mass exodus of fans out of the ballpark as the Yankees went down meekly in the eighth against Mets washout J.J. Putz.
The ongoing struggle of Javier Vazquez left everyone drained and dispirited. It couldn't have been fun to boo him, just as it was no fun to question him in the clubhouse afterward, to look into those haunted eyes and ask him things that it was clear he had no answers to. On a beautiful baseball day in New York, he had sucked all the life out of the game.
Girardi called Vazquez's problems "99.9 percent mechanical," but when asked what the other 0.1 percent could be, he admitted, "I don't know."
Pitching coach Dave Eiland was conspicuously absent in the postgame clubhouse, perhaps because he, too, is at a loss for answers.
"I feel good; I'm just not getting it done on the mound," Vazquez said. "The stuff is there, man. The stuff is there. I'm just not making my pitches and that's the bottom line."
If Javier Vazquez wants to look in one specific place to figure out what's gone wrong this season, he should focus on his curveball. Batters are teeing off on the pitch and are making contact more frequently, as well (see chart below). The main problem appears to be location. He was burying his curveball at the knees or lower 62.9 percent of the time from 2007-09, when hitters hit .119 with one homer. This season, 49.3 percent of his curveballs have been at the belt or higher; batters are 7-for-12 with three homers against those pitches.
Hitters vs. Javy's curveball:
The thing is, Vazquez began well, getting Omar Vizquel to ground out leading off the game and striking out Gordon Beckham on a fastball clocked at 93 mph, his highest reading of the season so far. The crowd seemed to be behind him, and Vazquez's body language communicated confidence.
And then, on the second pitch to Andruw Jones -- a career-long tormentor of Vazquez in the National League -- everything came apart. Vazquez's 1-0 fastball to Jones landed well beyond the left-field fence, and from then on, the blood was in the water. The game was less than three minutes old.
The Sox added single runs in the second and third but squandered chances to blow the game open with poor hitting -- Juan Pierre hacked at a first-pitch ball right after Vazquez walked Mark Kotsay, popping out to quell a second-inning threat. And when Jones came up again in the third, the Yankees were lucky the bases were empty: He crushed another Vazquez serving into the bullpen to give the Sox a 3-0 lead.
By the time Vazquez hung a curve to Kotsay, hitting .108, and saw it come down in the Yankees' bullpen, there was no longer any doubt that it would take a lot of work to rebuild a relationship that already seems severely, if not irreparably, torn.
"I think if Javy pitches the way he's capable of, he can [win the fans back]," Girardi said. "Anyone can turn it around. You always have the ability to rewrite the script.
This one, however, might need to be torn up and started over. For four starts now, Girardi and Eiland have talked in arcane terms about Vazquez's mechanics, about how his arm was lagging and how he was "getting underneath the baseball." All of this, we were assured, was "easily correctable," especially for a pitcher of Vazquez's pedigree.
But after the game, a dejected Vazquez cut through the jargon. "We can talk about my mechanics all day long," he said. "But I'm just not getting the job done."
Nor does he seem to have any idea how to. In the overall scheme of things, the Vazquez issue might turn out to be a red herring, considering the sobering possibility that Granderson may be out for a month or more and left field might become the purview of Marcus Thames and Randy Winn. Plus, Robertson can no longer be trusted in a tight spot, and Girardi is short of bullpen for Sunday's game and needs a superior effort out of Phil Hughes.
Suddenly, the glory of April gives way to the uncertainty of May. There are other issues here, and when you come right down to it, the outfield and the bullpen are daily problems, while the Javier Vazquez thing only comes up every five days.
And yet, it is there, it is real, and it is not going away any day soon.
Five starts into his new beginning with the Yankees, Javier Vazquez finds himself a stranger in the Bronx, lost in a dangerous neighborhood with no idea of how to get out.
CLUBHOUSE CHATTER: Mark Teixeira, who batted .136 in April, is batting .667 in May, with two hits. By contrast, Robinson Cano, who hit .400 in April, is batting .000 for May, taking an 0-for-3 with a walk. Nick Swisher did an exaggerated fist pump to celebrate his sixth-inning home run that gave the Yankees a temporary 6-5 lead, an action that amused Ozzie Guillen, his former manager. "That's the way he is, so good for him," said Guillen, who did not get along with Swisher during their time together. "Let him enjoy it. I wish he could have done that for me. He was a very horses--- player for me." Yankees relievers not named Robertson or Marte -- namely, Sergio Mitre, Alfredo Aceves and Boone Logan -- combined for five scoreless, hitless innings. Girardi said neither Mitre nor Aceves would be available Sunday.