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Do or die time for Vazquez

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Bob Klapisch

Bob Klapisch covers baseball for The Record in New Jersey and worked at the New York Post and New York Daily News. The author of five books, he was recently voted a top-five columnist in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

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The Yankees will never publicly admit there’s a ticking clock on Javier Vazquez, but let’s be real: all eyes will be on the troubled right-hander when he faces the Tigers Tuesday night. If it’s not the biggest start of Vazquez’ career, it’s close enough for one member of the organization to say, “we need to find out what’s going on with him.”

With a 9.78 ERA, Vazquez has been an embarrassment to the front office, although, to be fair, he hasn’t hurt the Yankees in any tangible way, either. Phil Hughes, 4-0, has filled the void and zoomed all the way to the No. 3 spot in the rotation. And despite a 9-3 loss to the Red Sox Sunday night, the Bombers have won nine of their first 10 series and are 12 games over .500 in just their first 30 games.

Still, Vazquez’s performance represents a gross miscalculation by GM Brian Cashman, who banked on both Vazquez and Nick Johnson over the winter. Both gambles have failed.

Johnson, who was seen as a younger, cheaper and more attractive No. 2 hitter than Johnny Damon, went on the disabled list this weekend with inflammation in his wrist. Who knows when he’ll be back and in what capacity? Johnson was batting .167 with a .306 slugging percentage, which will tempt the Yankees to transition Jorge Posada to the DH spot and award the everyday catching job to Francisco Cervelli.

There’s no blow-away replacement for Vazquez, however, whom the Yankees had projected not only as an innings-eater, but as a veteran who’d give the rotation much-needed depth in October, when, unlike last year, a fourth starter will be a necessity.

To say Vazquez has fallen short is like noting Bill Gates has a fat checking account. The right-hander has yet to get past the sixth inning in any of his five starts so far.

Joe Girardi is now finessing the rotation away from Vazquez, who was skipped in Boston over the weekend, and is being positioned to miss both the Red Sox and Rays next week in the Bronx.

Instead, Vazquez gets three less challenging opponents in succession: the Tigers on Tuesday, the Twins on Sunday and the Mets on May 21. Girardi said the new configuration will allow Vazquez to be the first Yankee pitcher to bat during inter-league play -- “since he has the most experience hitting” -- but no one was expected to buy that.

Instead, Vazquez and his 2.043 WHIP are in danger of being removed from the rotation altogether. Unless he can prove he’s capable of coping with American League hitters, Vazquez could be replaced by Alfredo Aceves or Sergio Mitre, who’s subbing for Andy Pettitte on a one-time basis tonight in Comerica Park.

What, exactly, is Vazquez’s problem? His fastball has sunk to as low as 88 mph, although team officials don’t believe that’s due to an injury. Instead, they suspect Vazquez’s mechanics have been corrupted by self-inflicted pressure; he’s panicking and thereby rushing through his delivery, lowering his release point and flattening out everything he throws.

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Vazquez has worked extensively between starts with pitching coach Dave Eiland. In the antiseptic setting of the bullpen, Vazquez has addressed each of the flaws in his delivery. But taking those work-arounds into an actual ballgame, especially in the Bronx, where fans have lost patience with him, is another matter.

Vazquez was booed thickly after his last outing at the Yankee Stadium on May 1, when he allowed the White Six five runs and seven hits in just three innings. Vazquez has one start to get it right -- tonight against Rick Porcello -- before he returns to the Bronx on Sunday.

Vazquez, an intelligent, self-aware athlete, knows there’s nowhere to hide during this slump. Nor will the Yankees allow it to last much longer. Time is not Vazquez’s friend.

A-ROD AND BRADEN, THANKFUL FOR EACH OTHER


Yes, it’s true in an inverted sort of way. Seemingly at odds after their feud over mound etiquette, both A-Rod and Dallas Braden came out ahead in this incident.

Braden, of course, made history, becoming the 19th pitcher to throw a perfect game when he blanked the Rays on Sunday. Whether it was A-Rod who motivated him, Braden exponentially raised his profile with the A’s. He has enough equity to hang around for the rest of the summer.

Meanwhile, the Yankees made it clear it’s no longer open season on their third baseman. Unlike 2005, when the Red Sox made it fashionable to bash Rodriguez, the Yankees came together after Braden hinted of a fistfight when the Yankees and A’s meet in July.

“We don’t do much talking in the 209,” Braden had said, referring to the area code where he grew up in Stockton, California.

Rodriguez said the players’ response to Braden, both on and off the record was, “totally different” than in 2007, when the slugger was criticized for distracting Blue Jays’ infielder Howie Clark waiting to catch a pop-up.

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Three years ago, not a single Yankee came to A-Rod’s defense, including Joe Torre. But this time, Rodriguez was backed by CC Sabathia, who not only took A-Rod’s side, but called out Braden, as well.

“He’s a clown,” Sabathia said. “Guy says he’s from the 209, what the (bleep) is that? That’s where I’m from and I don’t know what he’s talking about. Two-oh-nine. He needs to just calm down -- put that in the paper. That’s just tired.”

Braden had called enough attention to himself to warrant a reprimand from Billy Beane. The GM said, “the player has been spoken to, so hopefully the matter should be over.”

Beane’s words were a prophecy, as Braden went on to make history against Tampa Bay.

As for A-Rod, he smacked a home run Sunday night at Fenway.

Looks like a dividend was paid both ways.
Tagged: Tigers, Yankees, Athletics, CC Sabathia, Javier Vazquez, Nick Johnson

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