Vazquez excited to resume career with Yanks

Vazquez excited to resume career with Yanks

TAMPA, Fla. -- Nothing that Javier Vazquez accomplishes in this second go-round wearing a Yankees uniform will completely delete the memories from his shaky second half of 2004, punctuated by serving up a curse-reversing grand slam at the old Yankee Stadium.

Vazquez acknowledges that the blast he served up to Johnny Damon in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series will forever be on his resume, but luckily it is not as though time suddenly stopped when he was dealt away that winter.

Set to resume his career with the Yankees on Friday evening at Tropicana Field, when Vazquez takes the ball to open a three-game series against the Rays, the 33-year-old right-hander is grateful for another opportunity to log victories with a team he never hoped to leave.

"To pitch for the Yankees, it's just the expectation to win all the time," Vazquez said. "Some teams, you go out there and you want to win, obviously, but you know your chances are a little slim compared to here. Here, you have the chance to get in the playoffs every year. I think that expectation is what changes things. It is better."

As they begin their long and steady push to return to the World Series, several of the Yankees' premier winter acquisitions have already contributed through the first three games of the season, as New York took two of three from Boston at Fenway Park.

Curtis Granderson homered in his first and last at-bats of the series, Nick Johnson worked a pivotal bases-loaded walk and Chan Ho Park walked a three-inning tightrope to notch his first victory with the Yankees on Wednesday.

Now it will be Vazquez's turn to showcase his stuff, coming back via a December trade with the Braves that also netted lefty Boone Logan in exchange for outfielder Melky Cabrera, righty Arodys Vizcaino and lefty Mike Dunn.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi was pleased with Vazquez's performance this spring, when he took advantage of the opportunity to work with locker neighbor Andy Pettitte, and said that whatever happened in Vazquez's first pinstriped stint is history.

"I've told him just to be himself," Girardi said. "As far as going back to 2004, that's a long time. People change a lot in one year, let alone in five years."

Since he last pitched for New York, Vazquez spent the 2005 season with the D-backs, three years with the White Sox and then one campaign in Atlanta. Girardi complimented Vazquez's planning on attacking hitters, as well as knowing what his body needs to physically compile high innings counts.

"I guess I've learned how to pitch a little bit more," Vazquez said. "Obviously, I should. I have six more years in. I feel good, I feel like I'm throwing a couple of more pitches that I've thrown before, so that's helped me."

He offers the Yankees a durable fit, having recorded at least 10 wins and 150 strikeouts in the past 10 seasons, owning nine seasons of at least 200 innings and never going on the disabled list.

"I'm excited," catcher Jorge Posada said. "I think he's right now at his peak of his career. I think we've got a guy here that takes a lot of pride in how he pitches. He's been throwing 200 innings for a long time. The last time he was here, obviously, he wanted to do too much toward the end."

Yes, that second half of 2004 still lurks, and it wasn't until he was re-introduced to the New York media that he finally admitted his right shoulder had been -- in Posada's words -- "messed up."

Vazquez was a first-half American League All-Star, but everything jumped after that point, as he posted a 6.92 ERA in the second half and opponents posted a .286 batting average against him in 14 starts before the playoffs arrived.

Talking about those tough times now really does no good for Vazquez, who slots in as one of the league's best fourth starters on paper and has chatted about how much looser and relaxed the 2010 Yankees clubhouse feels this time around.

"I said in Spring Training that it was in the past," Vazquez said. "I talked about it a lot when I got traded and into Spring Training. It's just a new year for me and for the team. I just want to concentrate on the present."

But there is no question that things have changed.

That frees him to be exactly what he is, and for the Yankees, being a workhorse should be just what they need.

"It's the same responsibility of trying to win and pitching a good game, and just giving your team a chance to win," Vazquez said. "Every time you're out there, it doesn't matter if you're the fifth guy out there or the first guy out there. You've got the same responsibility."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.