Commentary

Vazquez an unlikely hero for Yankees

Javy is called upon to make rare relief appearance and ends up with win vs. Red Sox

Updated: May 18, 2010, 2:27 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Javier Vazquez had egg on his face when Monday night began. A contender for the NL Cy Young award last year, turned into a mop-up man, the last option of a beleaguered manager working with a depleted bullpen.

When Monday night ended, Marcus Thames had pie on his face, and Vazquez had a most unlikely win on his résumé.

"Baseball, it's a funny game, what can I say, man?" Vazquez said afterward. "I mean, to get a win as a reliever from one at-bat? That's funny, man."

[+] EnlargeJavier Vazquez
AP Photo/Kathy WillensJavier Vazquez got a huge out in the ninth inning on Monday night.

Funny in a peculiar way, not ha-ha funny. This was about more than just Javy Vazquez's spot in the rotation. It might have served as Vazquez's redemption, or at least a partial do-over for the worst moment of his first Yankees career: the night in 2004 when the Red Sox batted him out of this ballpark and the Yankees right out of the playoffs.

This was Javy Vazquez's night, belonging as much to him as it did to Thames or Alex Rodriguez, the drama of his performance subtler but no less real than theirs.

Irony doesn't get any more delicious than a starting pitcher whose manager has lost faith in him coming in because, frankly, there was nowhere else for the manager to turn, and he gets the biggest out of the game.

But wait, it gets better. Not only did Vazquez get the out -- a four-pitch swinging strikeout of Kevin Youkilis, the best hitter in the Boston Red Sox lineup. He wound up getting the win when first A-Rod and then Thames took Jonathan Papelbon, Boston's formidable closer, for a long-distance tour of the Bronx via two ninth-inning homers that turned what would have been a crushing 9-7 defeat into an uplifting 11-9 victory.

"No chance," a smiling Vazquez said when that scenario was read back to him after the game in the clubhouse, deserted except for him and the palpable aura of joy and relief that surrounded him. "No chance. If you told me that, I would not believe you."

The story, in a nutshell, is familiar to anyone who has followed the Yankees for the past six years or the past six weeks. Vazquez's first tour of duty in New York ended with a pummeling by the Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, and his second tour has pretty much picked up where that one left off.

Vazquez was skipped in the rotation last week when the Yankees went to Fenway Park because, whether the Yankees acknowledge it or not, they did not trust him to perform in the pressure-packed atmosphere of a Yankees-Red Sox series.

And Vazquez was skipped on Monday night for the same reason, despite pitching an excellent seven innings in Detroit last Tuesday -- a game in which, for once, the Yankees let him down rather than vice versa, manager Joe Girardi's protestations notwithstanding.

"I want to make this clear, OK?" Girardi said when asked about this after the game. "[Vazquez] was not skipped because of that situation. Our bullpen is a mess. I needed a long guy today. That's why Javy had to do it."

In any event, Girardi was clearly short in his bullpen, since neither Joba Chamberlain nor David Robertson were available on Monday, and Chan Ho Park -- the Yankees' only other right-handed reliever besides Mariano Rivera -- had already crashed and burned in the eighth, surrendering home runs to Youkilis and Victor Martinez which wiped out what remained of the 5-0 lead the Yankees accumulated in the first inning.

Still, you know Girardi's heart must have skipped a beat when he picked up the bullpen phone and told Vazquez to prepare to face Youkilis in the ninth. Damaso Marte had already put two runners on, via a single and a walk, and Girardi was not about to let Marte face a dangerous right-handed batter.

"I told him he had to be ready for Youkilis," Girardi said. "And he got ready in time."

Meanwhile, Vazquez -- who had made only two relief appearances in his career, one as a rookie in 1998 and another in 2006 -- was busy picking the brains of his 'pen brethren about the proper way to get ready out there.

"I really don't know what I'm doing as a reliever," Vazquez said. "So I asked Mo and Joba how long they need to get ready."

To his dismay, Vazquez was told they each need only 8-10 warm-up pitches to be ready to go. By his own estimate, Vazquez needs 15-20, minimum. "I threw like eight fastballs and that was it," he said. "I wasn't working on my mechanics or nothing. Just trying to get loose."

So dispirited was the Yankee Stadium crowd -- much of which had left after Martinez's home run -- that Vazquez's appearance on the mound was met with general indifference. But once he got two quick called strikes on Youkilis on breaking pitches, the crowd rose, sensing that a dramatic moment might be at hand. Two pitches later, the drama was complete as Youkilis swung through a slider.

"Obviously, by putting me in that situation, they're expecting me to get Youkilis out and come back to win," he said. "And that's what we did."

That, of course, drastically understates what happened in a game that started out looking as if it would be a stake through the heart of the Red Sox, who had already lost four of the first six meetings between these two teams this season, sat 7½ games out of first place, and were pretty much out of this game before it was a half-hour old.

But then Yankees starter Phil Hughes lost his command and very nearly the lead, leaving the Yankees clinging to a 6-5 advantage when he exited after five innings. Then Chan Ho Park happened. Suddenly, the game hung in the balance, and the ball was in the place most Yankee fans would least like to have it -- in the right hand of Javier Vazquez.

After a week in which his status on the Yankees' pitching staff had plunged lower than Florida housing prices, a week in which he was demoted and embarrassed by his manager and GM, his spot in the rotation usurped not only by Hughes but also by Sergio Mitre, suddenly Javy Vazquez was being asked to save the Yankees.

It was an unlikely scenario, and an even more unlikely result. Now, after having thrown only four pitches, Girardi says Vazquez is still on track to make his next scheduled start, on Friday night at Citi Field against the Mets.

"I understood where they were coming from, so it's no big deal," Vazquez said. "I want to pitch every five days, but whatever they ask me to do, I'll do."

Notes: A right-handed hitter, Thames was in the game against the right-hander Papelbon only because switch-hitters Jorge Posada and Nick Swisher were unavailable due to injury. Posada was suffering from a "knot" on his right foot, the result of a foul ball on Sunday, and Swisher is precluded from hitting left-handed due to lingering soreness in his left bicep ఽ After 15 walk-off wins last season, this was the Yankees' first walk-off win of 2010 ఽ Nick Johnson will have surgery on Tuesday on his right wrist and is out until July at the earliest … RHP Ivan Nova was sent down to Triple-A to make room for Park … Since July 2007, Papelbon is 0-5 with a 7.85 ERA and has allowed five home runs versus the Yankees, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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