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Vazquez on Rendon duel: 'I'm better than him'

@adamdberry
April 14, 2019

WASHINGTON -- At the outset of Sunday’s game, it seemed like the Pirates and Nationals were bound to witness a classic starting pitching duel between Jameson Taillon and Max Scherzer. Instead, they saved the best matchup for last. Batting with his team trailing by a run, the bases loaded and

WASHINGTON -- At the outset of Sunday’s game, it seemed like the Pirates and Nationals were bound to witness a classic starting pitching duel between Jameson Taillon and Max Scherzer. Instead, they saved the best matchup for last.

Batting with his team trailing by a run, the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning: Anthony Rendon. On the mound, working his second inning: Felipe Vazquez.

“I don’t care who it is. I know him, and I know he can hit,” Vazquez said. “But, you know, I'm better than him.”

Vazquez won the matchup by getting Rendon to fly out to center field, and his performance helped the Pirates escape Nationals Park with a 4-3 win and a series victory. Pittsburgh’s closer maneuvered in and out of jams to record the final six outs, none of which came harder than the last one.

Rendon, batting .400 with a 1.333 OPS, has been one of the hottest hitters in the Majors this season. Before the series began, the Pirates decided they could not allow Rendon to beat them. But there he was in the ninth inning, facing his former teammate Vazquez with a chance to walk off a winner.

“Rendon’s cool under pressure. He’s a good hitter. Felipe’s cool under pressure, one of the best closers in the game,” said Taillon, who struck out four in six innings. “I love watching baseball. As a fan, that’s what it’s all about. That’s what you’re paying the price of admission for -- a guy throwing 100 and a guy who can’t miss a barrel. It was fun to watch.”

Vazquez had already thrown 37 pitches, and the only offering in his deep arsenal that he felt good about was his fastball. Rendon fouled off a first-pitch fastball, took a slider and another fastball to get ahead in the count, then swung and missed on another fastball. Vazquez fired another heater, his 42nd pitch of the day, at 99.9 mph. Rendon fouled it off.

“I’m looking up and it’s 98, 99 [mph],” said first baseman Josh Bell, who drove in two runs and scored the go-ahead run in the ninth. “Golly, this guy’s speeding up. It’s like Verlander.”

The last pitch Vazquez threw clocked in at 98.8 mph. Rendon sent it to center field, Vazquez pumped his fists and shouted, and Starling Marte settled under the fly ball to record the final out

“You have to be confident about what you can do and what your stuff is that day. Every time I go out there, I feel comfortable,” Vazquez said. “The whole team has confidence in me. You see today they gave me two innings. I can’t let the team down.”

How did Vazquez wind up getting two innings, anyway? It dates back to Spring Training, when the Pirates informed him and setup man Keone Kela that they might be asked to work multiple innings on occasion

“Most people think that I’m just going one inning. I’m not a regular closer,” Vazquez said. “I get ready for that in the offseason.”

On Sunday, manager Clint Hurdle told Vazquez that he’d call on the closer if the Pirates were in the game and the middle of the order was due up in the eighth.

The Pirates have been searching for solutions in front of Vazquez over the past few weeks. Kela has given up three homers in seven games, and Richard Rodriguez has allowed four homers in eight appearances. Right-hander Kyle Crick is working his way back from the injured list. The Pirates trusted right-hander Nick Burdi with the seventh inning on Sunday, but they had to figure out a way through the next two.

Enter Vazquez. The left-hander worked around a walk and a single against the heart of Washington’s lineup in the eighth. Then rookie outfielder Jason Martin put Pittsburgh ahead by bouncing a two-out, two-strike double off reliever Wander Suero and into the Bucs’ bullpen.

When Martin’s ball hopped over the fence and Bell scored, Kela was warming up. He would have pitched the ninth if someone had to pinch-hit for Vazquez, Hurdle said. A few moments later, Kela sat down and Vazquez hit into the final out of the inning.

Victor Robles slapped a leadoff single to left. Brian Dozier went down swinging at a slider. Michael A. Taylor walked on five pitches, then Adam Eaton loaded the bases with a perfectly executed bunt. Vazquez didn’t hustle to field the ball, he said, because he wasn’t worried about having another runner on base.

He got the second out by catching Howie Kendrick looking at a fastball that he clearly wasn’t expecting. Then came Rendon, one more out and a pair of celebratory punches to catcher Francisco Cervelli’s chest.

“That’s fun baseball, right?” Bell said, smiling. “It’s a matchup you definitely want to see. If it’s us against them, I want Flip on the mound. If it’s us against him, I feel like nine times out of 10, Flip’s going to get him. Bases loaded, nobody on, trust the closer. Trust his stuff. Fastball beats him. We win the ballgame.”

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