After defecting Cuba, multiple elbow surgeries fail to hold back Marlins’ Lazo
Miami Marlins manager Dan Jennings figured he’d test rookie southpaw Raudel Lazo.
So this past Saturday, with National League MVP frontrunner Bryce Harper at the plate and a runner on third with two outs, Jennings called for Lazo to face the left-handed batter in a 2-0 ballgame in the sixth.
After falling behind 2-0 on a pair of sliders, Lazo threw a 91 mph fastball for a called strike. Another fastball missed before Harper fouled off an 89 mph four-seamer. On a full-count offering, Lazo induced a flyout to right on a 79 mph slider to end the threat.
"The one thing that this kid has shown the times before when he’s been out there is he’s very calm, very cool under fire," Jennings said afterwards. "He’s not afraid to throw the ball over the plate. Harper’s having a MVP-type season, so if you’re going to test him, let’s test him against the best. That’s a pretty good test, and he passed."
Considering Lazo’s journey to the big leagues, facing one of the game’s most feared hitters doesn’t quite compare.
Lazo, whose cousin Pedro Luis Lazo holds Cuba’s all-time victories mark, grew up in Pinar del Rio on the western part of the island.
From 2008-09, Lazo played for the local ballclub in the Cuban National Series. At 19, he was one of the younger rookies. Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu and Adeiny Hechavarria — household names in the majors — were members of other teams.
As Lazo put it without going into details, he defected and wound up in America looking for a future. The Marlins signed him as an amateur free agent in late 2011. He left his family — a mother who stayed at home and a father who worked at the jail — to support it and follow his dream.
"It’s very tough in that I came over here by myself," Lazo said through a translator. "It was tough to leave my family behind, but again, it comes back to having a positive mindset and doing what we have to do to help our family."
In 2012, Lazo appeared in 41 games for Single-A Jupiter, posting a 7-1 record and 2.44 ERA. He got promoted to Triple-A New Orleans for one outing, tossing a scoreless 1/3 inning.
In 2013, Lazo pitched in just five contests spanning seven shutout frames for Double-A Jacksonville before experiencing discomfort in his left elbow. Miami shut him down. He underwent Tommy John surgery in October.
In, 2014, Lazo’s elbow began bothering him after eight outings between the Gulf Coast League Marlins (5 IP, 3.60 ERA) and Jupiter (3 IP, 9.00 ERA). He had the procedure again in October. A once promising career took another setback.
"It was very devastating for me," Lazo said. "I honestly thought my career was over, so I was trying to think of how I could help my family, how I was going to be able to contribute to my family, help them any way possible. Going through two surgeries was very tough. I didn’t think I was going to get back."
By May 24, upon his return to the mound, Lazo started regaining his stuff — even though he was throwing just 88 mph. In his first season, he hit 95 mph on the radar gun. He now maxes out at 93. Still, Lazo started feeling normal again.
The 26-year-old lefty tossed eight times out of the Hammerheads bullpen, going 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA. Prior to his call-up with the Marlins on Sept. 2, he went 3-2 with a 2.15 ERA in 18 outings for the Suns.
Through 2 1/3 innings over three big-league appearances, Lazo has yet to surrender a run or hit. He has struck out three of his seven batters faced.
"Honestly, I thought the Marlins were on the fringe of letting me go, but they were actually the ones that kept me going, kept watching me, kept pushing me and I was able to bounce back," Lazo said. "They were happy."
At 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, Lazo’s stature won’t intimidate anyone. His journey makes him a clear underdog. His story is one of perseverance.
With Harper at the plate, Lazo maintained the same positive attitude and mindset he has needed to remain in the game. He uses it to be dominant on the mound. So Lazo kept his pitches in the zone, stuck with the plan of attack and got the Washington Nationals’ outfielder out.
"I don’t pay attention to what people think about me," Lazo said. "I’m just going out there to prove myself, going out there with the mentality that it’s your work ethic and your heart and fight that gets you there."