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Pirates notebook: Felipe Vazquez gets stronger despite team’s recent woes

September 3, 2018
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Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez delivers during the ninth inning against the Cubs on July 31, 2018, at PNC Park.

Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez smiled when he was reminded his velocity numbers have been rising in recent weeks.

“That’s the way it should be,” he said. “You’re not supposed to be tired at the end of the season. I throw hard when I want, not when people want me to throw hard.”

While the Pirates sink out of sight in the National League Central and wild card races, Vazquez is getting better and faster. His average velocity for the season is 98.2 mph, slightly above his career rate (97.4). He said he has reached triple digits more often than he did earlier in the season.

“I don’t throw hard until probably the last two months of the season,” he said.

In his past 24 appearances, he has surrendered only two runs, with 35 strikeouts and an 0.77 ERA.

When he recorded his 27th save Saturday night, he changed speeds effectively, especially on the last out. He threw 100, 98, 99, 98 and 100 mph to Wilson Contreras before getting a fly ball to right field on a 90 mph changeup.

“When he comes in and can go three digits and then throw the changeup and the slider, you gotta cheat with that fastball,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “So, anything else with that tilt and that late finish and that bottom to the changeup, it makes it very challenging.”

His save streak (17) is the longest in the National League, and his total (27) is a record for a Pirates left-hander. Vazquez blew three saves by May 27, but he took only four into Saturday’s game against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park. He has recorded 16 saves since June 6.

Combine Vazquez’s efforts with Keone Kela’s performance in seven games since he was traded from the Texas Rangers (0.857 WHIP), and the Pirates are solid in the back end of the bullpen.

But the losses pile up

The problem is they’ve scored only 17 runs in the previous six games and lost five of them.

The team was under .500 after Friday’s loss, 6½ games behind in the wild-card chase, but Vazquez said he and his teammates remain undaunted.

“Hope is the last thing you lose,” he said.

Starters not the problem

The ERAs of four of the Pirates’ five starters have been dropping in recent days, led by Trevor Williams, who has given up only three earned runs in his past six starts. His ERA has fallen from 4.60 to 3.53 in that time.

Jameson Taillon, who starts Sunday in the last of the four-game series against the Cubs, sits at 3.66 after allowing only 12 earned runs in the past six games.

“The results are very good,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “Pitch efficiency has been good, the distance has been good, the volume has been good, the mix has been good, the sequencing has been good. We’re happy with the progress.”

Chris Archer has been the exception, with his ERA growing from 4.31 when he was traded from the Tampa Bay Rays on July 31 to 4.49. Archer starts Monday against the Atlanta Braves.

Archer has been trying to add variety to his pitch selection, throwing curves and changeups to complement two- and four-seam fastballs and a slider.

“He had pretty much morphed into fastball/slider pitcher,” Hurdle said. “He felt very confident on revisiting some things that he thought he was really good at at one point in time.”

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