Felipe Vazquez Continues to Struggle


Felipe Vazquez continues to struggle in his second year as the Bucs closer as the penny-pinching Pittsburgh Pirates are paying the price for not adding any experienced veterans to their bullpen.

Felipe Vazquez blows another save

Vazquez, 26, blew his fourth save in five chances Thursday night, giving up five runs in the ninth inning as the St. Louis Cardinals rallied for a 10-8 win. The defeat was heartbreaking for the Bucs as they had come back from a 4-0 first-inning deficit to take an 8-5 lead in the eighth inning on a three-run homer by catcher Francisco Cervelli.

However, the late-inning loss was nothing for the Pirates who have now dropped 10 of their last 13 games. During that time, the Bucs bullpen has been torched for 27 runs in 40 and two-thirds innings.

Bucs don’t have a replacement for Vasquez

The problem for the Bucs is they don’t have any experienced relievers they can go to while Vasquez tries to work through his problems. The only veteran they had on the roster was George Kontos, who was signed late last year after being released by the San Francisco Giants. But his earned run average soared to 5.03 early this season, and the Pirates designated him for reassignment.

Young, inexperienced relievers not working out for Pirates

The Pirates did make some moves to try and bolster their bullpen in the off-season but they all involved young, inexperienced relievers. In the trade with the Houston Astros for Gerrit Cole, the Bucs did get back hard-throwing right-hander Michael Feliz who was 4-2 with a 5.63 ERA last season. He’s had his moments this year but has struggled lately as his ERA has risen to 5.87.

The Pirates acquired right-handed reliever Kyle Crick in the trade with the Giants for Andrew McCutchen. As a rookie last year, he had a 3.06 ERA in 19 innings. He failed to make the team out of spring training but was recalled and has fared well lately with a 1.93 ERA in 19 innings. Still, it’s hard to imagine the Pirates turning over the closer duties someone with such a short resume.

The Pirates brought in minor league free agent Richard Rodriguez and he’s pitched well with a 2.18 ERA. But he was lit up the Chicago Cubs on Monday, giving up four hits and two runs in an inning. Second-year man, Edgar Santana, has had his troubles lately, giving up four hits and three runs to the Cubs on Tuesday. As a result, his ERA has jumped to 3.57. The Pirates also moved two failed starters, Tyler Glasnow and Steven Brault, to the bullpen, but the results there have been mixed as their ERAs are 4.43 and 4.50, respectively.

So basically the Pirates have no reliable relief pitchers in back of Vazquez, who legally changed his last name from Rivero this past April. He has 10 saves with Crick and Kontos notching one apiece.

Other teams signed veteran relievers

The Pirates have no one but themselves to blame for the situation. Consider that the Cardinals signed veteran free agent reliever Bud Norris in the off-season to a one-year contract for $3 million. The team signed Greg Holland shortly before the season started, and he’s been a major disappointment with a 9.45 ERA. Norris, though, has more than filled the void with a team-leading 11 saves and 2.84 ERA.

In the off-season, the Milwaukee Brewers signed two veteran free agent relievers, Matt Albers and Dan Jennings to team-friendly deals worth $2.5 million and $750,000, respectively. Both have been outstanding with ERAs of 1.08 and 2.45, respectively.

The Brewers also traded for right-handed reliever Jeremy Jeffress late last season and he’s been an absolute star in the bullpen with a 0.62 ERA in 29 innings. With that bullpen, it’s no wonder the Brewers have the best record in the National League at 36-21 and lead the National League’s Central Division by four games over the Cubs.

Meanwhile, the Pirates spent nothing on their bullpen in the off-season and the results are showing as the Bucs are now 29-27, six and a half games behind the Brewers. While Vazquez had definitely dropped off from last year when he went 5-3 with a 1.67 ERA while converting 21 of 23 saves, there were signs that he could be in for a letdown this year. He was awesome early, giving up only four runs in 41 innings through April, May and June. Then he was perfect in July, not allowing a run in 11 innings.

Vazquez had problems last August

Vazquez gave up seven runs in 11 innings in August for an ERA of 5.40. He followed that up with a respectable September giving up three runs in 10 innings.

However, the Pirates choose to ignore that awful August and decided to go with perhaps the youngest bullpen in the game.

It’s possible that Vazquez may come out of his slump. He did strike out 88 batters in 75 innings last year. After reporting some elbow discomfort Sunday, he sat out Monday’s game but returned with one scoreless inning in games Tuesday and Wednesday. His velocity was reportedly the highest it’s been all season on Tuesday, hitting triple digits for the first time. Thursday, however, was his third game in a row, and the Bucs would be wise to avoid pitching him so much at least for the time being.

In the end, though, unless Vazquez finds himself or someone steps up to give him a helping hand, the Pirates season could be lost.

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Mark O'Keefe, 66, is a lifelong follower and fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates. A 1976 graduate of Penn State University with a degree in journalism, O'Keefe worked in the newspaper business as a sportswriter, reporter and editor for 46 years, starting as a sports stringer while a high school senior. A native of Monaca in Beaver County, he's lived in Uniontown, Pa. for the past 37 years.


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