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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 21, 2010

MLB: Vazquez has a chance to put The Pitch in the past with Yankees

By Bob Klapisch
The Record (Hackensack N.J.)

TAMPA, Fla. The fastball still takes up residence in Javier Vazquez's memory because, after all, it's the one that drove him out of New York in 2004. We all remember the time, the place, the flutters Game 7, AL Championship Series against Boston, the Yankees teetering toward the greatest collapse in postseason history.

The bases were loaded in the second inning when Vazquez went to war with then-Red Sox Johnny Damon. No spoiler alert necessary: We know Damon crushed Vazquez's first pitch for a grand slam that sent the Bombers to a 10-3 defeat and the Sox to an eventual world championship.

Vazquez is reminded of that pitch because not only was it a turning point for the Joe Torre dynasty, it cast doubt on his baseball manhood. Everyone loved Vazquez's arm, his velocity, that great slider but what good was any of it, others whispered, if he crumbled under pressure?

To this enduring legacy, the right-hander just shakes his head. Five-plus years after the fact, Vazquez still is re-trying the case, convinced he did nothing wrong against Damon.

"I'm a starting pitcher, that's my mentality. I was trying to throw a first-pitch strike in that situation," Vazquez said. "The fact that he hit it out, what can I say? It's just one of those things that happened."

Would he have attacked Damon any differently, given the chance? Vazquez shook his head again. "No way," he said. Not that the Yankees would ever need him in a Game 7 setting.

This time around it would be up to CC Sabathia or A.J. Burnett to pull the Yankees back from the abyss. Vazquez is just an accessory, which speaks to the strength of their 2010 rotation: The No. 4 starter is coming off a run of 10 straight seasons of at least 10 wins and 150 strikeouts. Only Randy Johnson registered more strikeouts in the last decade.

Vazquez, in fact, might be the best back-end starter in the American League, giving the Yankees reason to believe they, not the Red Sox, have the East's premier one-through-four.

The only variable is Vazquez's head, not his arm. But, in his defense, Vazquez points out that he pitched the second half of the '04 season with tenderness behind his right shoulder, a deficit that accompanied him all the way to that fateful encounter with Damon.

So it wasn't fear that crippled him in Game 7, it was the inability to find a proper arm slot. "I was underneath the ball, everything I threw was flat," Vazquez said. "My velocity was down, my location was off. I just didn't feel right."

Vazquez left the Yankees feeling like he could never repay the debt. Torre told him to think of his experience in New York in a positive way, and in one sense, the right-hander took that advice to heart: Two of his three subsequent seasons with the White Sox were successful, and in 2009, Vazquez all but owned the National League.

Not only did he win another 15 games and post a 2.87 ERA, but as the Braves' No. 1 starter, Vazquez struck out a career-best 9.8 batters per nine innings. His past arm problems were history, allowing the arsenal to go on full display: that 90-plus fastball, complemented by a slider that's got some depth to it, an off-speed curveball and a change-up, to boot.

Vazquez finished fourth in the Cy Young voting, which meant his reputation had been cleansed once and for all. Only it hadn't. Vazquez still felt like he had unfinished business in New York. When compiling the list of teams to which he could contractually veto a trade, he deliberately omitted the Yankees.

"In the back of my mind, I always wanted to come back, I hated leaving on that note," Vazquez said. "Part of me loved the National League; I loved the Braves, playing for Bobby Cox. But I knew there was a chance that I was going to be traded. I thought, 'it would be great to go back (to the Yankees).'"

He never hated it here, never found the noise and must-win ethos much of a problem. Vazquez, a native Puerto Rican said, "I grew up thinking they were a great team. Everyone in Puerto Rico loves the Yankees, and I was one of those people."

Vazquez says he'll work hard to justify the Yankees' renewed faith in him, but they say the slate has already been wiped clean. It's a new team, new clubhouse, new reality.

Vazquez himself says, "I can already tell this is different from the way it used to be. Night and day." Everyone gets along these days. The sniping and petty feuds, which crippled the Torre regime in its final years, has been replaced by the easy, rolling gait of a mature franchise.

That's why the Yankees don't even think twice about Vazquez's history, because it's exactly that history. They're happy to let Vazquez draft behind Sabathia and Burnett, and if all else fails, there's a 900-run offense ready to help.

It's not a bad place to work. Or to acquire amnesia.

"Eventually I'm going to stop talking about (2004), because, to me, it's over," Vazquez said, staring happily at the wide-open space called his second Yankee career.