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Vazquez basking in ASG atmosphere: 'It's a gift'

Flamethrowing closer rising to occasion as Pittsburgh bullpen, clubhouse leader
MLB.com @adamdberry

Felipe Vazquez holds several different titles for the Pirates. He's the closer, first and foremost, though it may be easy to forget this is his first full season holding that job.

Step into the Pirates' clubhouse, at home or on the road, and you'll find a table in front of his locker with a laptop, mixers and a speaker. Earlier this season, he added a strobe light and smoke machine. Lately, he's been walking around PNC Park wearing a yellow shirt with another title in black type: "DJ NIGHTMARE."

Felipe Vazquez holds several different titles for the Pirates. He's the closer, first and foremost, though it may be easy to forget this is his first full season holding that job.

Step into the Pirates' clubhouse, at home or on the road, and you'll find a table in front of his locker with a laptop, mixers and a speaker. Earlier this season, he added a strobe light and smoke machine. Lately, he's been walking around PNC Park wearing a yellow shirt with another title in black type: "DJ NIGHTMARE."

"He definitely moves to the beat of his own drum in the best way possible," Pirates reliever Tyler Glasnow said. "He brings a lot to the clubhouse, DJing every day then coming out to close games for us. I don't know if you could ask for much more."

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Nor could the Pirates have asked for much more from Vazquez since they acquired him and prospect Taylor Hearn from the Nationals for then-closer Mark Melancon before the 2016 Trade Deadline. On Sunday night, Vazquez left his DJ equipment in Pittsburgh and headed south -- to his old home clubhouse -- as the Bucs' lone representative at the All-Star Game presented by Mastercard at Nationals Park (Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET on FOX).

"It's been really good," Vazquez said during Monday's All-Star Media Day. "I can't wait for tomorrow."

Vazquez probably deserved to be an All-Star last season, when he took over as the Pirates' closer in early June. This season has not gone quite so smoothly for Vazquez, but if anyone doubted his All-Star ability, he proved it over the last month and a half.

Vazquez hasn't given up a run since June 13. Since a deflating loss in St. Louis on May 31, he has been scored upon in only one of his 19 appearances. During that stretch, he's put together a 0.95 ERA while striking out 34 of the 74 batters he's faced.

Video: MIL@PIT: Vazquez earns 22nd and 23rd saves in 1 day

Vazquez shrugs off most questions about why he's improved, saying the answer was "probably not worrying about it too much." The truth is more complicated than that. Vazquez was tipping his pitches earlier this year, so he altered his pre-pitch mechanics.

There have been other changes, too. Vazquez has seen his velocity climb about 1 mph since April, and Pittsburgh's catchers are calling for more sliders than they did earlier this season. His four-pitch arsenal, with everything playing off his triple-digit fastball, has always been one of his greatest strengths.

"I've never seen anybody like that. He's very, very blessed," pitching coach Ray Searage said. "I just wish him so much success. Never have I seen a guy come in as the closer and throw four pitches."

It makes sense that Vazquez has a starter's pitch mix, if you think about the last time he attended an All-Star Game. In 2012, the Rays sent a starting pitching prospect by the name of Felipe Rivero to the Futures Game. Back then, he thought he might have reached his ceiling.

Video: MIL@PIT: Vazquez on scoreless streak, Bucs' bullpen

Six years, two organizations and a move to the bullpen later, he's back as the Pirates' All-Star closer.

"I was actually thinking of coming the next year for the same thing," Vazquez said, laughing. "I never thought I was going to make it or I was going to be where I'm at right now. Looking back, I think it's been a long journey and it's been fun."

His success has thrust another title upon Vazquez: leader of the bullpen. Only 27 years old, Vazquez is the most experienced reliever on the Pirates roster. Only one reliever is older: 28-year-old rookie Richard Rodriguez. Vazquez is not a "rah-rah" leader, as Glasnow put it, but he is learning to lead by example.

"You need an anchor. Felipe proved that he can be the anchor and is proving he is the anchor. He's embraced the responsibilities now," Searage said. "I only see more maturity and more growth from him as we continue."

Those responsibilities can wait, though. Vazquez doesn't have to worry about closing games, spinning the postgame playlist or setting the right example in Pittsburgh's bullpen. For a few days, he and his family can enjoy the perks that come along with his newest title: All-Star.

"It's kind of a break for us. It's a gift," Vazquez said. "I'm just going to have fun."

Tweet from @Pirates: Media time for your 2018 #BucStar pic.twitter.com/FSfa27G1KR

While watching the 2018 All-Star Game presented by Mastercard live on FOX on Tuesday, fans can submit their choices for the Ted Williams Most Valuable Player Award presented by Chevrolet with the 2018 All-Star Game MLB.com MVP Vote.

The 89th Midsummer Classic, at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., will be televised nationally by FOX Sports; in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and RDS; and worldwide by partners in more than 180 countries. FOX Deportes will provide Spanish-language coverage in the United States, while ESPN Radio and ESPN Radio Deportes will provide exclusive national radio coverage of the All-Star Game. MLB Network, MLB.com and SiriusXM also will provide comprehensive All-Star Week coverage.

For more information about MLB All-Star Week and to purchase tickets, visit AllStarGame.com and follow @MLB and @AllStarGame on social media.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Felipe Vazquez