DK'S GRIND

Kovacevic: Vazquez’s nightmarish stuff scaring people off

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Felipe Vazquez and Elias Diaz celebrate the final out Saturday in St. Louis. - AP

ST. LOUIS -- Hey, where'd everybody go?

Maybe it's because the script had been so strikingly similar. I mean, the Pirates would beat the Cardinals, 2-1, Saturday night at Busch Stadium, same as the previous night. Both starters were smooth, this time Jordan Lyles. Again, Kyle Crick found a little trouble in the eighth but escaped. And the ninth, as ever, would belong to Felipe Vazquez.

But by the time St. Louis came to bat in the ninth, with their team down a single run, the original crowd of 40,000-plus had dwindled down to this sad scene I snapped from the press box high above:

[caption id="attachment_825542" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Felipe Vazquez takes the mound in the ninth inning Saturday. - DEJAN KOVACEVIC / DKPS[/caption]

Oh, for real. And it was no different when Vazquez entered the previous night. As soon as the eighth ended, there was a rush for the exits.

"Ha!" the man himself laughed and beamed a bit as I showed him that pic up there. "They know Vazquez is coming into the game!"

That could be it. They do call themselves the Best Fans in Baseball, after all, so they might be aware that Vazquez:

• Is 12-for-12 in saves, trailing only the Padres' Kirby Yates at 15-for-15 and the Tigers' Shane Greene at 14-for-14 in all of Major League Baseball

• Has a 0.48 ERA that's lowest among all closers in the majors, having allowed his only earned run all season April 30 in Arlington, Texas

• Has struck out 30 batters in 18 2/3 innings, including at least one in 16 of his 17 appearances, putting his 14.46 K/9 rate second in the majors to the Brewers' Josh Hader

• Has held opponents to a .205 average and .258 on-base percentage

• Has retired the first batter he's faced 13 of 17 times, helping keep his average pitch count per inning to a healthy 16.1

This list could go on and on, but it's safe to say they know. Everyone knows at this point that, as Francisco Cervelli told me, "This is a special individual."

Yep. Having a special start to the season, too.

"My best season, I think," Vazquez told me after this, before quickly correcting himself. "Wait, I don't know. Maybe 2017 was my best."

Hm. It was in some statistical senses, and certainly over the full scope of a schedule. He was 21 of 23 in saves with a 1.67 ERA, a 0.89 WHIP and a .181 opponents' batting average. But the low save total was because he didn't take over as closer from Tony Watson until mid-summer.

This, I insisted back to him, was better.

"You think so?" he replied. "Why?"

Because, in addition to carrying the closer's burden singularly, he looks more complete. He isn't just about the high-90s heat and that trademark circus slider anymore.

In the Friday save, for example, he finished off Paul Goldschmidt, one of the National League's premier hitters, with back-to-back changeups that ticked an absurd 89.9 mph and 90.5 on the gun. Both bit so savagely under the bat that Cervelli could only shake his head when I brought those up.

And in this game, Vazquez blew 99.4 mph of a four-seamer -- with a tail -- through Jose Martinez after setting him up with the change, he offset consecutive sliders with a 98.9 fastball to get a soft lineout from Yadier Molina, and he flipped from slider to curve to end the game with this Harrison Bader bouncer:

I might have gotten Vazquez to agree with my assessment.

"I'm more mature, for sure. I know who I am. I use all my pitches," he acknowledged. "I'm probably better now. All they're telling me now is to pitch to the plate. Don't try for corners. Just pitch to the plate, to the glove."

In other ways, he apparently hasn't changed at all. He's still the clubhouse DJ, still can be seen riding miniature motorized vehicles about, still barks and jokes the loudest.

"I'm having fun. That's what this game is for me. It's fun. When I pitch, it's fun."

Don't tell it to the ticket-holders.

THE ESSENTIALS

• Boxscore
• Video highlights
Scoreboard
• Standings

[caption id="attachment_825466" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Jordan Lyles pitches in the first inning Saturday. - AP[/caption]

THE GOOD

One wonderful way to follow up a 17-4 loss is to pitch toward a 2-1 win, as Trevor Williams, Crick and Vazquez did the previous night.

So what's it say that Lyles was even more efficient in his six innings, conceding nothing more than a double that was nearly clawed down by Gregory Polanco at the right-field fence?

"It says a lot about this group," Clint Hurdle would say. "It's great to respond like we have."

It likely says that much more about Williams, the staff's steadiest performer for nearly a year now, and Lyles, who's been maybe the most pleasant surprise in the league at 3-1 with a 2.09 ERA that's sixth-lowest in the majors among qualified starters. Like Williams, he isn't flashy, but he's unafraid to work high in the zone. That held true even on a day when, as he'd admit, his foundational curve was failing him. He stayed upstairs and got lazy fly after lazy fly.

I asked about that specifically:

Yet another similarity: Both Williams and Lyles survived 30-pitch first innings.

“It’s not the way you draw it up coming out of the blocks, but he was steadfast in his approach and conviction with his pitches, and he stayed in the hunt,” Hurdle said. “He got us to where we needed to get in the game.”

I asked Hurdle about the intangible similarities between Williams and Lyles.

“There comes a point in time in guys’ careers where they figure out who they are, they like who they are, and then they go pitch like who they are,” he replied. “I think Lyles got to that point last season, and he’s getting more opportunity this year.”

Give it up for Lyles but also for the signing itself. It looked like just another on-the-cheap move at the time, dumping Ivan Nova, adding Lyles and saving roughly $5 million. But whether that was the motivation or not, it's worked.

THE BAD

It's on me again for waiting this long to tip the cap toward the only rally the Pirates would need, that in the fourth inning. Starling Marte opened with a single to left off St. Louis starter Miles Mikolas and was promptly followed by Polanco's triple to the fence in right-center, then Josh Bell ripping a single to the same field:

THE OTHER SIDE

It'll sound strange from the team that teed off for 17 runs two nights earlier, but the Cardinals are mostly bemoaning their lack of offense these days. They wound up with two hits in this one, and they've been held to one or zero runs in six of their past 10 games, a 2-8 span.

That's hardly contender material.

“We’d like to see a little better result here in the last week or so,” Mike Shildt, the manager, told St. Louis reporters. “And I’d be the first to tell you, there's a lack of 'W's in that win column. But again, you look at it and say, ‘Man, the baseball's still played at a crisp rate. The effort's good. The preparation's good. We have to continue to execute.”

THE DATA

• The consecutive road wins while scoring two or fewer runs are the first for the Pirates since Aug. 6-8, 2008, in Phoenix and San Francisco.

 Bell's hitting streak was extended to 11 games with the fourth-inning RBI single. In the streak, the longest active one in the league, he's 16 for 45, a .356 clip.

• Marte's in a more modest streak of six games, and he's 9 for 26, a .346 clip.

• Crick will escape notice in Vazquez's shadow, but he's held the opponent scoreless in 13 of his 14 appearances, including the past nine.

• The two hits allowed was a season low for the pitching staff.

THE INJURIES

• Chris Archer, right-hander, is on the 10-day IL with right thumb inflammation. He pitched a simulated game here Friday and declared himself available to pitch "in five days." Hurdle wouldn't confirm that.

Corey Dickersonoutfielder, is on the 10-day IL with a strained right shoulder. He did some light throwing in the outfield Friday, as well as hitting in the sim game.

• Lonnie Chisenhalloutfielder, is on the 10-day IL with a broken right hand. He also hit in the sim game.

• Keone Kela, right-hander, is on the 10-day injured list with right shoulder inflammation.

• Jameson Taillon, right-hander, is on the 10-day IL with a strained right forearm flexor tendon. He will not throw until early June.

Nick Burdi, relief pitcher, out with right elbow/biceps pain caused by a nerve problem, was moved from the 10-day to the 60-day injured list Saturday to make room on the 40-man roster for trade acquisition Chris Stratton.

• Jacob Stallings, catcher, is on the 10-day IL with a cervical neck strain. He's on a rehab assignment with Indianapolis.

• Erik Gonzalezshortstop, is on the 60-day IL with a fractured right clavicle. He won't return until at least mid-July.

THE SCHEDULE

These two go at it again once more, Sunday at 2:15 p.m. Eastern. Steven Brault will face Dakota Hudson in the finale. The clubhouse will open to reporters at 9:45 a.m., with Hurdle speaking shortly thereafter. I've got this.

THE COVERAGE

All of our expanded baseball coverage, including Indy Watch by Matt WelchAltoona Watch by Jarrod Prugar, and Mound Visit by Jason Rollison, can be found on our team page.

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