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Vazquez feeling 'stronger' after All-Star '18

Early offseason workouts and a refined mentality have helped motivate the Pirates' closer
@adamdberry
February 26, 2019

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There were mornings this winter that Felipe Vázquez did not want to get out of bed at 6 a.m. to work out. It was the offseason, after all, and Vazquez appreciates his sleep. But Vazquez found inspiration, and not just from his sister, Prescilla – who

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There were mornings this winter that Felipe Vázquez did not want to get out of bed at 6 a.m. to work out. It was the offseason, after all, and Vazquez appreciates his sleep.

But Vazquez found inspiration, and not just from his sister, Prescilla – who is also his agent and offseason workout partner – telling him to wake up and hit the gym. After his first full season as Pittsburgh’s closer, Vazquez wanted to make sure that he was physically ready to go from the start of Spring Training.

“I think you learn as you go. Last year was a year that the game taught me a lot of things that I didn’t know,” Vazquez said while sitting in front of his locker in a corner of the LECOM Park clubhouse. “I think we just took advantage of them, realized what I had to do and put them in place this year.”

Vazquez didn’t start throwing until January last year. He pitched 75 1/3 innings in 2017, and he wanted to preserve his body for another long season at the back end of the Pirates’ bullpen. Nobody is going to complain about what Vazquez did on the mound in '18, posting a 2.70 ERA with 37 saves in 70 appearances, but he saw room for improvement.

So this winter, Vazquez only took a few weeks off before starting to work out. Five days a week, he and Prescilla drove 30-40 minutes from their farm in Sorrento, Fla., to be at the gym shortly after 7 a.m.

“I was pretty much training the whole time,” he said.

As a result, Vazquez said, his arm is in “better shape and stronger than it was before.” That might be a concerning thought for any hitters who will face him this season, considering the All-Star lefty’s four-seam fastball averaged 98 mph last season.

Vazquez is also looking to take on more of a leadership role this year after establishing himself last season as the closer and as one of the most experienced pitchers in Pittsburgh’s bullpen despite being only 27 years old.

“Some guys, it takes time and success before you even attempt to become a leader. He was just trying to figure things out when he got over here,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He’s a confident guy. … Last year, the challenges that he had early in the season helped develop his demeanor, his perseverance, his resiliency, which made him more of a guy that was able to lead later on.”

Those challenges came mostly in May, when Vazquez blew four saves and put together a 5.73 ERA in 12 appearances. He adjusted his mechanics with pitching coach Ray Searage and only blew one save while posting a 1.70 ERA the rest of the season.

“I think he was able to show some guts and some guile,” Hurdle said. “Going through that challenging time in front of his teammates, it showed how he worked and how he decided to go about things, I think that brought him some more street cred as well.”

As Vazquez turned his season around, the Pirates’ bullpen took shape in front of him. Vazquez, Kyle Crick, Richard Rodríguez and Edgar Santana emerged as a lock-down late-inning quartet. Keone Kela, who also has closing experience, joined the fray in August and will return as a setup man this year. Despite a leaky middle relief corps, Pittsburgh’s relievers put together a 3.57 ERA in the second half last season.

“The arms are dynamic. There’s real velocity. There’s real spin. There’s real deception, the tunneling that some of them are picking up on,” Hurdle said. “There’s weapons out there. There’s guys that like pitching at that important time of the game, which is also a good feeling for the team to have.”

Vazquez believes they can be even better.

“I think we’re going to be the best bullpen this year,” he said.

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