Scottsdale, Ariz. -- When Mylz Jones hit a leadoff triple in a tie game in the bottom of the eighth inning, nobody told Jerry Vasto it was just a meaningless scrimmage, an intrasquad only meant to get the Colorado Rockies' minor leaguers ready for the season out on the backfields of the club's Arizona complex.
So when Vasto induced a ground ball back to himself and fanned the next two hitters to escape the man on third, nobody out situation and leave the score tied heading to the ninth inning, he walked off the field triumphantly. It didn't matter that maybe a dozen people saw it; sure, the backfields aren't glamorous, and spring training statistics don't matter... but don't tell that to Jerry Vasto.
"I just want to get outs, man, that’s pretty much it," the lefty tells me after his scoreless inning, which you can watch on video (above). "That’s my job in the eighth inning, get outs and hold the game. I like the eighth inning, coming in at that big spot, trying to get that hold and keep the game tough if we’re winning, or if it’s a tie game making sure a run doesn’t get across. There, after that leadoff triple, I just tried to make some good pitches, and good things happened."
Vasto, who has the accent and demeanor stereotypical of a New Jersey native, struck me as remarkably intense, the kind of personality suited for the bullpen, even for having just pitched in only an intrasquad scrimmage. It hasn't always been like this, though. In fact, up until his dominant year at Low-A Asheville last summer, Vasto lived life as a starting pitcher and hadn't quite found his spot in baseball.
But then, in 2015, the left-hander came out of nowhere. A 24th round pick the year prior from a small New Jersey college, the hurler turned in 58 innings of work over 46 relief appearances for the Tourists, finishing 2-4 with three saves and a 2.93 ERA and, most impressively, 10.5 K/9 against just 3.1 BB/9 and a meager 6.5 H/9.
"I was definitely happy with the year I had," Vasto says of his first full summer in pro baseball. "That was the first time I was a reliever after starting in college, so definitely being able to do that last year built my confidence going into the offseason."
As it should have. Vasto, who will start this season in High-A Modesto later this week, is likely going to be counted on as a seventh- or eighth-inning set-up man for that ball club just like last summer.
"I knew what I had to do to be ready for spring training, after going through my first spring training, so I had a better idea of what to work on in the offseason, and what to be prepared for," he says of carrying over some of his rhythm from season to season. "Now, I'm trying to slow the game down, and keep the ball low to get some ground balls."
Vasto's stuff is pretty straightforward; he's going to come at hitters with his fastball, and the slider is a pitch he's gotten comfortable throwing in more counts and situations. Even in the video above, you can see him freely using his slider in that tie game with a runner on third, unafraid of the consequences should he spike one. In fact, that fastball-slider combo is what really set him off on a successful summer last year in the South Atlantic League.
"My [velocity] picked up after the year I got drafted, I put on some weight after college, and I long tossed a lot," Vasto says of what it took for him to become a late-inning, high-leverage reliever.
"The arm care they have us do here really helped, and I got more of a feel for my slider than I did in college, so that definitely helped a lot," Vasto adds, also crediting—just as teammates Sam Howard and Ryan Castellani have repeatedly done—Tourists pitching coach Mark Brewer for help with slider consistency and command.
"Last year, [Brewer] helped me a lot with it," he adds, "and this year [Nuts pitching coach Brandon Emanuel] is working a lot with me on it as well. It's still early and I’m getting that feel back, but it’s coming along."
Just as Howard makes for an interesting conversation regarding his mature mindset about the game, or Castellani fascinates with an enlightening discussion on his strategies for throwing different pitches to different sides of the plate, Vasto is equally interesting in the simplicity of his approach. That's probably the right call for a reliever who will face many a difficult situation come summer time, but in a way, it's refreshing to hear.
"I’m just trying to get it down, man," Vasto tells me after I ask, twice, about his strategy with the slider. "I’m just trying to start it as a strike and get it down, especially with two strikes on the batter. I just kind of go every at bat, every pitch one at a time. Our catchers do a good job of knowing what to do to each hitter, so I trust my catchers and 95% of the time I’m throwing what they call."
From there, Vasto—like everyone else in hurry-up-and-wait bullpen roles—knows the importance of staying ready when the phone rings. It's something he learned last year, and a trait he'll continue to perfect throughout his career.
"You’ve got to know your body, and how many pitches you need to get loose, because sometimes coach might come out and say 'hey, you got the next inning,' and sometimes it's 'get hot real quick, you’ve got the next batter,'" Vasto explains. "So you’ve got to really listen to your body."
"I try to get loose around the fifth or sixth inning knowing the game situation of when I might go in," he adds, explaining the most consistent his routine can get in the unpredictable world of relief pitching. "That way if it is 'hey get hot, you’ve got the next batter,' I’m ready to throw."
"But yeah," he adds, adrenaline obviously still flowing through his body now nearly a half hour after his shutdown inning in the scrimmage, "you’re definitely a little bit more hyped up."
Looks like the eighth inning suits Jerry Vasto just fine.
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