DENVER -- Felipe Vazquez acquires his target. He eyes it, analyzes it, quickly identifying two possible approaches.
• Option A: Play it safe. He could dip his toes into the waters and feel out the situation before fully committing. He could gather more data, then decide to either lay the hammer down or call an audible.
• Option B: Push the chips in. All of 'em. Leave no doubt.
You already know the answer.
"If I'm doing something, I'm really going for it, you know?" Vazquez was telling me at his locker here at Coors Field.
Here's the thing: We weren't talking about baseball. At all. We were talking about fishing. That was Vazquez describing his first-ever trip to Bass Pro Shops. Growing up in Venezuela, Vazquez was introduced to the sport of fishing through small ponds and hand-lines, a far cry from the braided lines, 10-bearing reels and science-lab technology filling lakes and rivers across the U.S.
"There, you basically just throw it out and wait," Vazquez continued. "When I came here, man ... I was like, I couldn't believe it. I think I spent a couple thousand that day. Why not?"
When you're Vazquez, "Why not?" is an appropriate response to fishing or to sending elite hitters like Bryce Harper or Pete Alonso to the shadow realm.
There's nothing remotely normal about those strikeouts. Against Alonso, Vazquez quick-pitched him to end the game, sending his opponent into a literal stumble forward in the process. He mentally and physically eviscerated one of the game's top young talents in a crucial moment.
The same approach applied on this Sunday afternoon at Coors Field, when Vazquez closed out the Pirates' 6-2 victory over the Rockies and a four-game sweep with this sickening slider to Sam Hilliard:
"This skill set would be the most elite that I've been associated with."
Yeah. Clint Hurdle, manager of well over 1,250 career games, said that here about Vazquez. The most elite. Because at this level, in the big leagues, everyone is elite to an extent. The worst pitcher in MLB will still take your soul if you're not fully prepared and on your game.
Now, chew on Hurdle's words. He was talking about the 1 percent of the 1 percent. Vazquez stands out among others who stand out. And Hurdle wasn't done there. I presented a layup of a question for him, and he took nearly two full minutes fleshing out everything that makes Vazquez, well ... Felipe freaking Vazquez:
"I've been fortunate that I've had men that were closers, and one of the first conversations that I have with them once they establish themselves in that position, I said, 'Pitch like a closer. Don't act like one,' " Hurdle elaborated. "Because I've seen some entitlement come with it, the job, from time to time. And I remind them that they have an opportunity to lead that bullpen in many ways, shapes, and forms, and I think Felipe has gravitated to that and understands the responsibility."
Close games and be a leader of men?
Vazquez is more than just 102-mph, game-ending heat. He takes the mound, and there's a visible shift in the seats, both in the stands and in the press box. His work on the field is half of the equation. None of this matters if he's not striking out batters, getting outs and ringing up saves.
He does that — to the tune of 24 saves now in his 26 opportunities, a 1.65 ERA, a 0.93 WHIP and, including his two Ks in this one, 81 strikeouts and 12 walks in 51 2/3 innings. Last season, he went 37 for 42 in saves with a 2.70 ERA, a 1.24 WHIP and 89 strikeouts and 24 walks in 70 innings. Both seasons earned him a spot in the All-Star Game, and this one's been that much better than the last.
So he has that actual baseball stuff down.
But it's everything else, the smiles off the field and the jovial attitude. The ability to flip from joker to king the second his name is called. Hurdle mentions the "entitlement" that can come with being a closer, and it's something Vazquez understands well. His approach is methodical and calculated. Every game is an opportunity. And Vazquez doesn't squander opportunities.
"I don't think it takes too long," Vazquez told me of getting primed to pitch. "I think it gets there in the eighth inning. The rest of the day, I'm not thinking about the game. I'm not thinking about who's going to hit or the game situation. I just try to relax the most that I can, because I need that energy for the game ... "
"Whenever Clint calls, 'Felipe Vazquez, nine...'"
He snapped his fingers.
"That's when that switch goes on."
The dynamic itself is not uncommon. Plenty of closers can enter "the zone." Hurdle said it himself up there. Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Joel Hanrahan — the Pirates have enjoyed some stellar closers over the past decade. But it's the scope of Vazquez's switch that impresses.
"His mentality is to beat you any way that he can that given day, depending on what kind of weapons he's got working," Ray Searage was telling me. "He's got a mentality that, it's him against the world. And he's not going to let the world beat him."
And that ego that comes with some closers Hurdle described?
"He's able to control it," Searage said. "He knows when he's between the white lines he's a different animal. And then when he comes off those white lines and his job is done, then he's Felipe. And it's really refreshing to see that, because some guys will hold onto that persona for a while. But Felipe is like, 'Nuh-uh.' When he's between those white lines, he's a lion. And when he comes off, he's back to being himself like that."
Searage had more, and you can hear our conversation in full right here:
So there's the personal side. But circling back to those technical abilities, Trevor Williams added the following:
"The stuff is without question," Williams added when I approached him about Vazquez. "He's got some of the best stuff on his fastball that I've ever seen. He's got control with his heater and he's also got control with two different breaking balls and his changeup, so he has closer stuff with starter pitches.
"It's funny. He's an intense guy, but he's also, if you're watching him every day, he's probably one of the more relaxed closers in the big leagues out on the mound. You see him smiling, you see him not as intense as other closers, how you would expect other closers to be. That's what makes him unique. That's what helps him thrive."
And there it is. Even Williams, when asked about Vazquez's arsenal specifically, couldn't help but come back to Vazquez's mentality. There's no separation here. You don't get one without the other. And when those two forces — the mental and the physical — collide? Especially with a guy like Alonso or Harper on the other side?
That's when the magic happens.
"It makes the game fun," Vazquez said. "Like they say, 'Let the kids play.' So I guess when I faced Pete Alonso that day when we were at home, it got me pretty excited. And then, last week, when we were in Philly and I got to face Bryce, I loved that AB ... I think my adrenaline was like top-top that day.
"It was amazing, just looking back and seeing the point that I'm at right now, just to be able to flip that switch that quick. It's just something else for me."
I tell Vazquez that's all I have for him today. I appreciate the time. He shakes my hand and smiles. He settles in, kicking back in his chair and attaching — wait, are those joysticks? And some buttons?
Did you just attach a PlayStation controller to your phone, dude?
"It's a controller that connects to my phone, so it's easier to play PUBG."
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