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Felipe Vazquez excited to be stopper on a Pirates bullpen that is ‘locked up’

Kevin Gorman
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez celebrates after getting a double play to end the game and defeat the Nationals, 6-3, Monday, July 9, 2018, at PNC Park.
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez celebrates with catcher Elias Diaz after defeating the Brewers Thursday, July 12, 2018, at PNC Park.

BRADENTON, Fla. – When Felipe Vazquez looks around the Pirate City clubhouse and sees Richard Rodriguez, Kyle Crick and Keone Kela, the Pittsburgh Pirates closer thinks back to spring training last year.

Only Vazquez began the 2018 season on the Pirates’ Opening Day roster and with a defined spot in their bullpen. The All-Star closer reinforced his role, as his 37 saves ranked third in the NL and sixth in MLB.

This season, despite losing Edgar Santana to Tommy John surgery, the back end of the bullpen promises to be among the best in the majors once again as Rodriguez, Crick and Kela will serve as strong setup men for Vazquez.

“It’s way, way, way, way, waaaaay different,” Vazquez said. “Right now, everybody is set up, everybody is healthy. Hopefully, it will continue to be like that for the next few months.”

The 27-year-old left-hander said he didn’t do anything “special” this offseason, focusing on continuing his consistency after finishing strong in the final four months of the season.

But Vazquez got off to a rocky start, allowing three walks, one hit and four runs in the ninth inning of the opener at Detroit. And he had two blown leads and three blown saves in a seven-game stretch from May 20-June 5, which required adjustments that included Vazquez stop tipping his pitches.

“Bumps are going to be in the road – for anybody,” Vazquez said. “I haven’t seen one person who doesn’t go through a slump, or a little bump like you called it. That’s baseball. Nobody’s perfect.

“I learned from it. Now, I know if you take it easy they’re going to get you. I was taking it easy. … I was like, I did it last year so I’m going to go back and do it. I can’t do that. I can’t take it easy on nobody.”

Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli has watched Vazquez embrace the closer role by repeatedly delivering in clutch circumstances, and believes his approach will help him reach a higher ceiling.

“Vazquez is Vazquez,” Cervelli said. “This guy, at a young age, he’s got his routine and he knows what he’s doing. No one has to tell him, ‘Go to work’ or whatever. When things go the wrong, he knows how to figure it out. This guy surprises me because he’s young but he knows what he’s doing.”

And that’s the one thing Vazquez intends to keep the same as he is now surrounded by so many familiar faces.

“I think this year is going to be different.” Vazquez said, “because the bullpen is already locked up.”

Spoken like a true closer.

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Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.