As dominant as the Dodgers have been on their march toward a seventh consecutive division title, as primed as they appear to be for a third consecutive World Series berth, some of their fans look toward October with a sense of dread.
The scenario stoking their fears: The Dodgers take a two-run lead in the seventh inning of a playoff game. Inconsistent setup man Joe Kelly gives up a run in the eighth. Shaky closer Kenley Jansen gives up two in the ninth. A game, perhaps a series, is lost.
“I’m sure some people will be upset,” said Felipe Vazquez, the lights-out left-hander the Dodgers were unable to pry from the Pittsburgh Pirates before the July 31 trade deadline. “They’ll be like, ‘I told you we should have gotten Felipe!’ ”
And what will Vazquez think?
“I don’t know — I’ll probably be fishing, so I won’t be watching the game,” Vazquez said this week in Anaheim, where the Pirates played the Angels. “I’ll probably get the notification on my phone. In the offseason, I don’t watch TV at all.”
The Pirates placed a premium price on Vazquez, and rightfully so. Not only has he joined Milwaukee’s Josh Hader and the New York Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman as one of the premier left-handed closers in the game, he is signed through 2021 to a team-friendly contract that includes $10-million options in 2022 and 2023.
Vazquez, who entered Wednesday with a 1.72 ERA and 22 saves in 23 chances, could have boosted the Dodgers’ World Series hopes and anchored their bullpen — at a cost of $32.5 million — for four more years.
“The combination of skill set and contract is dynamic,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “It puts him in rare air right now.”
If the bullpen holds and the Dodgers end their 30-year championship drought, fans will be glad they held on to their prospects. If the relievers stumble and the Dodgers fall short, fans will gripe about their inability to acquire Vazquez.
“They’re pretty strong right now,” Hurdle said of the Dodgers, “but they would definitely be stronger” with Vazquez.
Vazquez, who has 73 strikeouts and 11 walks in 47 innings, mixes a fastball that averages 98.3 mph and touches 102 mph with a slider (86.6 mph), curve (82.4 mph) and changeup (88.6 mph).
“It’s safe to say his stuff is in the top one percentile of major leaguers,” Pirates pitcher Chris Archer said. “But he’s not just slinging it up there. He has a plan. He can back-door his breaking ball, throw it under your swing. He can move his fastball around to all quadrants. He locates. And he’s pretty young. There’s a lot of greatness ahead for him.”
Vazquez, 28, reminded Southern California fans of his value this week, blowing a 100.7-mph fastball by Shohei Ohtani to end Monday night’s 10-2 win over the Angels and inducing a double-play grounder from Kole Calhoun to end Tuesday night’s 10-7 win.
“He’s a freak — when he’s on, he’s almost unhittable,” Pittsburgh catcher Jacob Stallings said. “It’s fun to catch him, even though my hand hurts sometimes. You don’t see that many comfortable swings off him, especially from left-handers.”
Vazquez has held left-handers to a .205 average and right-handers to a .207 mark. He’s given up 36 hits and three homers all season.
“He’s one of the few closers I’ve seen who will throw four pitches,” Hurdle said. “And they all can be a wipeout pitch at any particular time.”
Vazquez, a native of Venezuela, was a long reliever in Washington before being traded to Pittsburgh for closer Mark Melancon in July 2016. By 2017, Vazquez was closing for the Pirates, a role he’s embraced with gusto.
“Closers have to be a little crazy just to be in that situation,” Vazquez said. “It’s a high-wire act. You can’t be scared. I like that. I’m used to it. I love being under pressure all the time. I think it gives me more energy.”
The Dodgers could have handed the ball to Vazquez in those situations this October but refused to meet the asking price. So while the Dodgers steam toward the playoffs, Vazquez will finish the season with a last-place club.
“At the end of the day, nothing happened,” Vazquez said as he pulled a Pirates cap over his head. “I’m still here.”