Sports are full of such tails of redemption. Sometimes it's not good enough just to win. Victories always seem sweeter when they erase the bitter taste of past failures. Winning then, cannot be its own victory in these situations. It has to mean something more to maximize the sense of fulfillment.
Taking the bump for the Yankees tonight is man who will be besieged by redemption storylines this year. Six years ago the Yankees brought Javy Vazquez to New York and signed him to a four year contract extension. After the departures of rotation stalwarts Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and David Wells after the 2003 season, the then 27 year old Vazquez was to be the cornerstone of the new Yankee pitching staff for the next several years.
As our friends at RAB pointed out earlier today, Vazquez got off to a running start, pitching masterfully in his Yankee debut. It was the start of an outstanding first half for Javy, one that saw him go 10-5 with a 3.56 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and a selection to the All-Star Game. It was all downhill from there. Possibly nursing a shoulder injury, Vazquez stumbled down the stretch, posting a 6.92 ERA the rest of the way while allowing close to three baserunners every two innings.
The bottom came in the Yankees' final game of 2004, Game 7 of the historically disastrous ALCS. Vazquez was summoned from the pen in the second inning. Kevin Brown had dug the Yankees a 2-0 hole in the first inning, and left Vazquez a bases loaded jam with two outs to go in the second frame. With Johnny Damon at the plate, the first pitch out of Javy's hand was deposited into the right field stands, effectively ending the Yankees season and assuring the greatest post-season collapse in baseball history. Two months later, Vazquez was shipped to the desert, the centerpiece of a package used to acquire 41 year old Randy Johnson as the next would-be Yankee ace.
In the five years since, Vazquez has been vilified in the minds of several Yankee fans. He's shouldered a disproportionate amount of the blame for failing to clean up Kevin Brown's mess, and for being part of team-wide collapse that involved 24 other players, a manager, an entire coaching staff, and a fractured front office regime. Despite his continued solid to outstanding performance in the years since his departure, his return this past December was greeted with remembrances of "Home Run Javy", and claims that he doesn't possess the testicular fortitude to play in New York. Throughout the media beat and the blogosphere today, all manner of stories, this one included, have been some variation on the theme of Javy's potential redemption on his second turn through the Bronx.
The Vazquez story line has at once become both a personal pet project and personal pet peeve since his reacquisition. I would like nothing more than to see Javier Vazquez redeem himself in the eyes of the not-so-faithful this year. Not because I feel bad for him, or because I think he needs to atone for his 2004 performance, but because it would please me greatly for Javier Vazquez to shut up the naysayers who chose to selectively focus on a half-season of play, or worse yet a singular post-season pitch. I would enjoy it if he were to prove wrong those who have such a sense of entitlement as fans that they feel some sort of special breed of athlete is needed to be worthy of the honor of playing on the greatest stage in sports. It would make me happy if Vazquez would illustrate to the "he's OK as a fourth starter" crowd why he was arguably the best pitcher in the National League last year.
Javier Vazquez doesn't need any redemption for his role on a flawed team that flamed out at the worst possible time. But if he pitches well enough this year to make that simplification the prevailing story line, I'll take it.
On the other side of tonight's story are the Tampa Bay Rays. After surprisingly taking both the AL East and the AL Pennant in 2008, the Rays took a step back last year. Expected to contend in the always difficult AL East, the team received uncharacteristically poor performances from four spots in their line up and inconsistent pitching from the back end of their rotation. They fell 13 games from their 2008 record, finishing nine games out of the playoff hunt.
Yet the Rays are rightfully considered contenders again this year. They have a talented line up, including premium bats in Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, and Carlos Pena. They have a young and deep pitching staff and play good defense. While this might be their last chance to contend with the likes of Pena and Carl Crawford, there is enough talent in the organization and the front office for them to be contenders for years to come.
David Price, the top selection in the 2007 draft, gets the ball for the Rays tonight. He's already made four appearances, three starts, against the Yankees in his young career. He enters tonight 1-0 against them, carrying a sparkling 2.25 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, and .123/.220/.259 batting line against in 24 innings of work.
So here we are, six years and one day since Javier Vazquez' Yankee debut, and one year to the day since Fack Youk's first musical preview. The Yankees are back in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area after having just left last Saturday. The Rays are looking to redeem themselves after a disappointing 2009, and are looking to land the first blow against one of their primary competitors in the AL East. Javier Vazquez is just looking to pitch, but many are looking for him to redeem himself after his first stint with the Yankees fell short of expectations. In light of all that, we'll go back to a tune we used once before, a long time ago:
With the lefty Price on the mound, Brett Gardner grabs some pine again and Curtis Granderson takes the nine spot. Nick Swisher moves up to seventh, and Marcus Thames will play left and bat eighth. Joe Girardi's comments prior to Game Two seemed to indicate that Gardner, Granderson, and Nick Johnson would alternate sitting in favor of Marcus Thames against lefties. Thus far, Gardner has gotten the short straw both times.