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Yankees fifth starter Vazquez is getting into a groove

New York Yankees starting pitcher Javier Vazquez (31)

New York Yankees starting pitcher Javier Vazquez (31) throws in the top of the first inning against the Houston Astros. (June 12, 2010) Credit: Christopher Pasatieri

The Yankees continue to exist in what feels like a carefree universe, as Saturday's 9-3 pounding of the Astros could've passed for a Grapefruit League game on the intensity meter.

Alex Rodriguez doesn't play? No worries! Here comes West Babylon native Kevin Russo, who didn't even touch the ball in nine innings at third base.

Marcus Thames goes on the disabled list with a right hamstring injury? Not good, but Brett Gardner is ready to return to the lineup, anyway.

Javier Vazquez's velocity is down? What's the difference, when the Yankees' schedule features more rest stops than the New Jersey Turnpike?

"If I'm locating, I know I can win throwing 88, 89, 90," said Vazquez (6-5), who allowed three runs in seven innings to Houston, striking out six and walking none. "Obviously, I would love to get back to where I was last year and years in the past, 90 to 94. If it's there, great. I feel good. I think it'll be there pretty soon, hopefully.

"If not, I can win with that."

The Yankees are counting on it, as they approach the segment of the season in which serious trade discussions ensue. The Mariners will be dangling Cliff Lee, whom the Yankees love and intend to sign as a free agent this coming winter.

For the 2010 season, however, the Yankees look to their starting rotation as an area of strength, and wouldn't be inclined to trade any top prospects for Lee or any other starter.

Vazquez, even with his recent climb back to respectability, ranks as the weak link in the rotation. So his velocity will be monitored and, eventually, tested against better offenses, as the Yankees analyze the trade market.

Vazquez's fastball topped out at 89 miles per hour Saturday and mostly lingered in the 87-88 range. Last year, when he put up a terrific season for the Braves, his fastball averaged 91.1 mph, according to FanGraphs.com. Entering Saturday, his 2010 fastball averaged 89, so that number will drop.

Diminished velocity, plus a switch from the National League to the American League, sounds like a recipe for disaster. Yet Vazquez unquestionably has moved past the disaster of his first five starts. In his last six starts, plus his May 17 relief appearance against the Red Sox, he has allowed 13 earned runs in 40 innings for a 2.93 ERA, with 38 strikeouts and 12 walks.

"He's not letting one run carry over," Joe Girardi said. "He just goes out and makes pitches."

Vazquez agreed: "When you're struggling, you want everything to go right. And when a guy gets on, and another guy gets on, you're like, 'Oh, here we go.' . . . Now, I'm trying to concentrate on every hitter."

It helps, of course, that he has a good changeup and curveball to complement the fastball. Against lowly Houston, the curveball accounted for three of his strikeouts, the changeup two and the fastball one.

"What I like is his location," Girardi said. "That's the key."

Wins are a poor measure for starting pitchers, yet it's worth noting that each of the five Yankees starters have at least six wins. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last time the Yankees had five pitchers with six or more victories after 62 games was 1939, a championship season.

Vazquez's good run has come against mostly poor teams; the Tigers (May 12) get on base some, and the Blue Jays (June 6) slug plenty. He'll surely have to face Tampa Bay, Boston and maybe Texas down the line. But the AL isn't very deep at the moment, and plenty more easy assignments are coming.

As the team's fifth starter, Vazquez hardly ranks as a reason to worry. Just like pretty much everything else in this Yankees season.

New York Sports