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Vazquez to make Game 4 start10/09/2004 12:09 AM ET
By Gary Washburn / MLB.com
MINNEAPOLIS -- Yankees manager Joe Torre kept the media at bay. He did not officially name his Game 4 starter until a few hours before Friday's 8-4 Game 3 win over the Minnesota Twins. Javier Vazquez, however, found out earlier in the week that he was the guy and has had a few days to prepare.
Vazquez will now have a chance to clinch a trip to the ALCS against tough Minnesota left-hander Johan Santana on Saturday afternoon at the Metrodome.
Vazquez has been the forgotten man in the New York rotation for the past few weeks. For a while, he was the Bombers' most productive starter and ace of the rotation. He was a 10-game winner before the All-Star break and it appeared the transition from pitching in desolate Montreal to baseball's most storied franchise was going smoothly.
Yet, with a team-leading 14 wins in his first season as a Yankee, Vazquez was left hanging when playoff assignments were being handed out. Mike Mussina and Jon Lieber were locks to start the first two games, and then Torre waited to see if Kevin Brown, who missed three weeks in September with a broken left hand, was healthy enough to pitch six solid innings Friday.
If Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez's shoulder was healthy enough, Vazquez would have pitched out of the bullpen. That's because a potentially outstanding season by the 28-year-old right-hander turned sour because of a poor second half. He was 4-5 with a eye-raising 7.06 ERA after the All-Star Break. He was the losing pitcher in that 22-0 shellacking on Aug. 31 by the Cleveland Indians.
So entering the postseason, it was obvious the organization lost some confidence in Vazquez. He insists the problem is not physical. Torre thinks his troubles are strictly mechanical.
"When he starts drifting, starts jumping at the hitter, he has to try to catch up, and when he does that, everything is elevated," Torre said before Game 3. "If he stays back and allows his arm to come through, it seems pretty simplistic. The only problem is when you're out there with 50,000 fans out there, you have a tendency to try too hard."
What Torre has discovered about Vazquez is that the former Expos standout is his own worst critic. The more he struggles, the more he battles with his confidence and focus. His ERA was 1.71 runs higher this season than his final year in Montreal and he won just twice in the final two months.
So he understood fully when the club did not immediately place him in the playoff rotation. He is looking at a potential clinching Game 4 as an opportunity to atone for a miserable second half.
"I have to understand that I didn't do the best job the second half," he said. "That's one point, I know that. You have to be your own critic, and I didn't do the best job. I knew I wanted to pitch in the playoffs, but I knew that I made the errors."
Vazquez's lone start this season at the Metrodome did not go well. He allowed six runs and nine hits in 6 2/3 innings in an 8-2 New York loss. Vazquez yielded home runs to Corey Koskie and Justin Morneau. He was better in his most recent meeting with the Twins, allowing four runs in 6 2/3 innings in a no-decision on Sept. 30.
Vazquez has just one win since Aug. 6 and could be pitching to send the Yankees to another ALCS clash with the rival Boston Red Sox. But that type of pressure beats pitching in meaningless games in Montreal.
"I think that's the reason we want to play baseball is because we want to be in this type of situation," he said. "And I've always gone home early, so I watch the playoffs at home, and I wanted an opportunity to pitch in the playoffs with the Yankees."
Vazquez has not pitched since Sept. 30 and has had nine days to straighten out his mechanics and regain his confidence. Torre said his young pitcher is fearless but like some of the team's standout players, tries to do too much instead of allowing his talent to do the work.
"Like (Derek) Jeter, he's not afraid of the competition," Torre said. "That's usually the pressure that gets to you in postseason, and he's not afraid of that. Just trying to be himself frustrates him, and that's where the pressure comes from. There's no concern about him being rattled by postseason, you just hope he has a few comfortable innings to let him settle in."
A good start could be the key to Vazquez's success on Saturday. He had a 5.77 ERA this season from the first to third innings with 20 home runs allowed.
The importance of his start is not lost on Vazquez. He realizes starting a postseason game for the Yankees is a privilege, not a right. He wants to make the most of his opportunity.
"I'm feeling more comfortable with my mechanics than I was probably three weeks ago, and, you know, like I said, I forget about all that (second half) stuff," he said. "That's in the past, and this is like a whole new season here. Hopefully I can have some good things in the playoffs and erase all the second half."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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