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Christian Vazquez is back and Red Sox catcher can pinpoint exact moment he knew it

by: John Tomase on Thu, 04/13/2017 - 7:25pm

Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel (right) congratulates catcher Christian Vazquez after finishing a 4-3 win over the Pirates on Thursday. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)Sometime this winter, while playing for Santurce in his native Puerto Rico, Christian Vazquez experienced a revelation.

A runner broke from first -- Vazquez can't remember which one, because when you've got an arm like his, they all look the same -- and the catcher exploded from his crouch to rocket a throw to second for the caught stealing.

He smiled as he recalled what went through his head.

"That's the arm I know," he said. "So yeah -- it's back."

And how. Two years after undergoing Tommy John surgery and putting his longtime viability in jeopardy, Vazquez is back and it's like he never left.

He helped decide Thursday's 4-3 victory over the Pirates by erasing Adam Frazier on an attempted steal of second in the ninth. He caught two of three runners, moving to 3-for-4 on the season and 26-for-55 for his career. That's a lifetime 47.3 percent success rate that's best among active backstops.

At some point, rival clubs will realize it's not worth running on the tandem of Vazquez and Sandy Leon, who are a combined 6-for-7 catching would-be thieves.

"I hope it's not for a long time, because he's a game changer," said bullpen catcher Mike Brenly. "But I don't think that time is very far away before both of our guys shut down running games."

It's not supposed to be this easy. In addition to hitting .625 in support Leon's .348, Vazquez is once again rifling the ball around the diamond like a tail gunner.

"I didn't see him a ton last year, but I can tell you that from playing with him from A ball all the way to the big leagues, it doesn't look like anything ever happened to him," said reliever Matt Barnes. "That guy's good. Catch, release, throw -- needless to say, I think he's all right now."

Vazquez actually misfired on one throw Thursday, tossing wide of novice third baseman Marco Hernandez with Gregory Polanco attempting to swipe third. Polanco ended up scoring. Otherwise, Vazquez has proven unbreakable.

Just ask closer Craig Kimbrel. He experienced a couple of anxious moments in the ninth after Frazier led off with a single and professional pest Francisco Cervelli lined out to Mookie Betts just steps in front of the Red Sox bullpen.

With one out, the Pirates sent Frazier in an attempt to put him in scoring position. Vazquez corralled a curveball from Kimbrel and wiped him off the face of the earth.

"First off, it was on a breaking pitch, so obviously it's not going to get to the plate as fast," said Kimbrel while explaining the degree of difficulty. "He's going to have to work with that. I think it kind of helped that it was up, because he was coming up to get it. Anytime a catcher throws out a guy on the breaking ball, that's just quick hands and making the perfect throw and that's what he did."

The peace of mind that Vazquez and Leon have provided this year can't be measured in traditional stats. Advanced metrics are only beginning to convey the ways catchers can impact a game, but Vazquez and Leon certainly pass the eye test.

"They both do a great job throwing guys out and calling games, not letting passed balls get by, and little things like that that add up over the course of a game," Kimbrel said. "Like you saw today, I threw one more pitch and the game was over with. Where if he's safe, you don't know what could happen. All around it was a huge play.

"As a pitcher, when you know you can bury a breaking ball, or just having a catcher who throws guys out behind the plate, the opposing team knows that. So that's going to slow them down a little on the bases, which makes it a little easier to just focus on making the pitch."

After Dustin Pedroia slapped the tag on Frazier, he pointed emphatically at Vazquez behind the plate. It's safe to say the potential for such moments motivated the 26-year-old during his year of rehab.

He suspected he was back this winter. Now he knows it.

"I love it," Vazquez said. "I love it. That's why they pay me here."