Vasquez shines in Bucs debut

Vasquez shines in Bucs debut

PITTSBURGH -- The shaving cream may have been cleaned off. But what's becoming Virgil Vasquez's trademark grin, and a somewhat contagious one at that, wasn't going to be wiped away anytime soon.

After showing impeccable control and proving why Pirates management has been so quick to laud his strike-throwing ability, Vasquez celebrated his first Major League win on Friday by leading the Pirates to a 5-3 victory over the Royals in front of 18,458 at PNC Park.

"It was great," Vasquez said, shortly after cleaning up from the postgame shaving-cream-in-the-face prank pulled by reliever John Grabow. "I had a lot of fun. I had a lot of support from home, and everyone here was very welcoming. I just can't get over how much fun it was."

One day after being summoned from Triple-A Indianapolis to assume what was Ian Snell's rotation spot, Vasquez did what Snell had struggled to do all year. He threw strikes with ease. He maintained decent efficiency. He got ahead in the count with regularity and maintained a quick pace that had his defense praising him afterward.

"For his first start up here, I thought he did a fantastic job," manager John Russell said. "He attacked the zone down, and when you do that, good things happen."

Did they ever. Vasquez, who had not pitched in the Majors since doing so with Detroit at the end of the 2007 season, limited the Royals to just four hits and two runs in his six-inning start. Of the 99 pitches he threw, 66 were strikes.

The righty threw first-pitch strikes to 13 of the 17 hitters he faced outside of the second inning, the only frame in which Vasquez stumbled mildly. And he ended his start by retiring 14 of the final 16 hitters he faced.

"I actually wasn't nervous," said Vasquez, despite how long his journey back to the Majors had been. "I was actually the most comfortable that I've ever been. I guess you know that you're a big league pitcher inside, but you never really know until you do it. It was nice just to do it."

After being claimed off waivers three different times this offseason, Vasquez landed with the Pirates in late January. Not only did it get him out of a Tigers organization in which the right-hander felt blocked from reaching his potential, but it put him in a situation where he was forced to make some changes.

A pitcher who had relied too heavily on a fastball-slider combination was told by Pirates management that he couldn't use his slider. The result? He developed more confidence in his changeup and curveball. It showed on Friday and proved to be a critical adjustment, as Vasquez especially used his curveball to get ahead in the count.

"I had the other pitches, but I never threw them," Vasquez said. "I don't want to say that the pitches got better, but I got more comfortable throwing them behind in the count and in fastball counts. I trusted that I could throw a pitch in the 70-mph range and trust that it wasn't going to get hit."

Vasquez finished with seven strikeouts, a total he reached just once in 14 Minor League starts this season. He had just seven strikeouts in his previous 16 2/3 Major League innings.

"He was locating his pitches good, keeping the ball down and things like that," said Royals shortstop Tony Pena. "Trying to keep hitters off-balance, that's what he did."

Pena was actually involved in the only threat the Royals would stir up against Vasquez, that coming in the second. After allowing a leadoff walk and two RBI doubles, Vasquez fell behind Pena, 3-1.

But what happened next seemed to help settle Vasquez down. Pena grounded a fastball to shortstop Jack Wilson, who alertly threw to third when he saw Kansas City's Miguel Olivo break from second. A brief rundown ensued, with second baseman Freddy Sanchez eventually tagging Olivo out.

In the meantime, Pena took off for second, a baserunning decision that looked genius with no Pittsburgh fielder anywhere near the bag. But after making the tag on Olivo, Sanchez noticed what was happening, sprinted toward the bag and made a diving tag on Pena just in time to complete the rally-killing double play.

That represented the last legitimate threat the Royals would present all night until three Kansas City put the potential tying run on first with two outs in the ninth against closer Matt Capps. Capps allowed a two-out homer and two more runners to reach before striking out Mike Jacobs to end the game and record his 17th save.

As for Vasquez's offensive support, it came from some of the unlikeliest power sources.

"It was a big day for the little guys," joked Nyjer Morgan.

Indeed it was. Three players with a combined five homers all season each went deep. First came Morgan, whose two-run homer in the third tied the game at 2. It was the left fielder's second homer in 10 games.

"I was just trying to hit the hole there, and he left one up, and I deposited it into the right-field bleachers," Morgan said.

Jason Jaramillo and Wilson, each with two homers this season, then tacked on runs with solo shots in the fourth and sixth, respectively.

"It's unexpected, but nice," Wilson said of the power output from a team that entered the night with the second-fewest home runs among any team in baseball. "I feel pretty good about what we're doing in the seven and eight hole. We are taking care of the bottom half of our offense."

Still, power surprise and all, this night belonged to Vasquez. With his parents hosting a watch party in California with his mother "screaming somewhere," as Vasquez so eloquently put it, the 27-year-old starter has earned himself at least a temporary stay in the rotation.

"Boy," he said, "that was fun."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.