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NL hitters describe nightmare in facing Vazquez

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Felipe Vazquez watches the National League batting practice Monday in Cleveland. - AP

CLEVELAND – There is a reason Felipe Vazquez has earned the nickname “Nightmare.”

The Pirates closer is a nightmare for opposing hitters. Just ask some of the players who step into the batter’s box against him.

“His stuff is as good anybody’s in the league,” Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong told me. “And he puts the ball where he wants to. Most pitchers who throw that hard usually don’t have pinpoint control, too. That’s a very tough combination.”

It is also why Vazquez is an All-Star for a second consecutive season. He will be on the National League team along with Pirates first baseman Josh Bell on Tuesday night for the All-Star Game at Progressive Field.

Vazquez is having another fine season, converting 20 of 21 saves while posting a 2.11 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 35 games. He also has 60 strikeouts and just 10 walks in 38 1/3 innings.

Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant has been facing Vazquez since 2016. He, too, respects the left-hander and explained why Vazquez is one of the best closers in the major leagues.

“He has four pitches and no other closer has four pitches,” Bryant said. “Normally, against the closer, you gear up for the fastball and respect that he has a breaking ball. With Vazquez, he can throw four different pitches and you always have to keep that in mind when you’re facing him. That just adds to the difficulty. You just don’t know for sure if he’ll throw one of his secondary pitches. He’s very unique in that regard.

“As a right-handed hitter, at least I get a little bit of a better look at him. If you’re a left-handed hitter, I don’t know what you can do beyond trying to guess what he’s going to throw and hope you’re right.”

The usage breakdown of Vazquez’s pitches is interesting. He has thrown fastballs 60 percent of the time this season, 18 percent sliders, 11 percent curveballs and 10 percent changeups. Most closers with a fastball that averages 98.1 mph and has topped out at 102 would normally throw about 75 percent heaters.

“You’ve got to keep them guessing,” Vazquez told me. “Big-league hitters are good. You can’t keep throwing them the same pitch, or they will eventually hit it.”

Vazquez developed his four-pitch arsenal while a starting pitcher in the minor leagues in the Rays’ organization. He has been used exclusively as a reliever since reaching the major leagues in 2015 with the Nationals.

The Pirates are an organization that prides itself in being innovative. With that in mind, I asked Neal Huntington a while back if they would ever consider moving Vazquez to the rotation to take advantage of his pitch diversity. The answer was no, though Huntington admitted it was an interesting, outside-the-box idea.

I asked Vazquez during the All-Star festivities if he would like to start. He didn’t seem crazy about the idea but said he thinks he could do it.

“I could pitch five innings if they really needed me,” Vazquez said. “I couldn’t do it today. I’d need to stretch my arm out. But if (Clint Hurdle) told me ahead of time, gave me some time to prepare, I think I could do it. I enjoy it when he gives me the chance to pitch two innings. I think five innings would be fun, but I wouldn’t want to do it all the time.”

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