Vázquez sparks rally with 'on the money' throw, clutch hit

March 31st, 2024

KANSAS CITY -- A very determined spent his offseason working hard to put behind him the bitter taste of going completely unused in the postseason -- and he showed up at Spring Training boasting about having “built an engine.”

He’s now hitting the gas pedal.

Following a stellar defensive showing this spring, Vázquez took full advantage of his first regular-season opportunity of 2024, playing into the game’s pivotal moments with both his arm and his bat to make a significant impact in the turning of the momentum in the Twins’ 5-1, come-from-behind victory over the Royals at Kauffman Stadium on Saturday.

“I know the player I am,” Vázquez said. “I have a lot of experience under the belt. I'm happy to be myself again.”

Coupled with a resurgent Byron Buxton driving in three runs with a pair of RBI doubles, the Twins plated all five of their runs in the game’s final two innings to claim their first series victory of the regular season, with a chance to go for a sweep behind Bailey Ober on Sunday.

Before all that, the Twins had squandered their most promising opportunity of the game in the seventh, when they loaded the bases while down 1-0, but Vázquez grounded into an inning-ending double play to send the game into the hands of Kansas City’s high-leverage relievers.

But he got his chance at redemption.

“He had just grounded into a double play, so to be able to embrace that and come back out defensively and watch what you just did, that shows his resilience [and] the player he is,” Buxton said.

First came Vázquez’s arm.

The Twins had tied the game, 1-1, in the top of the eighth on an RBI double by Buxton when Bobby Witt Jr. drew a one-out walk in the bottom of the frame and took off for second. Vázquez made a lightning-quick exchange as he zipped a throw to second, where a flashy tag by Carlos Correa nabbed the 49-base stealer from a year ago and quashed any potential Royals rally.

Vázquez insists he didn’t put any special work into his throwing this offseason. It’s just that he worked on speed and his core as he aimed to gain strength and agility in his overall skillset -- and this is what the results could look like.

"I put it on the money. That's it,” Vázquez said with a grin.

“The cannon is back there,” Joe Ryan said.

In fact, Vázquez posted a pop time of 1.84 seconds on that play -- essentially a measure of how long the ball took to get from his mitt to second base -- which tied for his second-quickest mark of the Statcast era (since 2015). All four of his quickest times have come since last June 21.

“He’s a very intelligent ballplayer, and he’s perfecting things, still, at this point in his life and his career,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He’s kept himself in great shape, he came in this Spring Training in a great spot, and he’s still thinking about and working on things like getting rid of the ball quickly, and his footwork.”

Then, came the bat.

In the top of the ninth, the Twins set Vázquez up with a hit batter and a walk to start the inning, leaving the veteran in position to rope the RBI, go-ahead single into left field off Royals left-hander Will Smith to prime Minnesota’s four-run frame -- again, punctuated by a two-run double by the healthy and energetic Buxton.

Vázquez was motivated plenty by the .598 OPS he posted in 102 games last season, the first of a three-year, $30 million contract in which he maintained that he knew he wasn’t playing up to his true capabilities.

Though he handled it extremely professionally in the moment by all accounts, the playoff snubs certainly stung, too -- and that’s why he showed up this spring looking (and moving) this way.

“He was moving unbelievably,” Baldelli said. “Like, better than at any point previously that I had seen him.”

It was certainly significant to him to make this kind of impression in his ‘24 debut.

“My body is in better shape,” Vázquez said. “I worked in my offseason for that. Prepared myself to get more mobility, more athletic than last year. It was a hard offseason last year when I signed here, and it was a short offseason. It was a better offseason this year, and it was amazing to prepare my body to be at a high level.”