A year ago, Christian Vazquez could see the future laid out in front of him. He had gotten rid of the No. 55 jersey that he had been given when he was called up in 2014 — a number given to a rookie, more or less because it was available, not because it was special.
He asked to wear No. 7, because the number meant something to him. It was the number Pudge Rodriguez wore. Of all the catchers to come from Puerto Rico, Rodriguez might be the greatest. Vazquez wanted to join him.
The Red Sox saw Vazquez’s path, too.
He had the tools to change a game from behind the plate, he had an arm that made baserunners nervous, and he had the poise that made pitchers trust him. Coming out of spring training in 2015, Red Sox manager John Farrell said he could see Vazquez growing into a job that was certainly his.
Then, a torn ulnar collateral ligament took that job from Vazquez before the season started.
It took a year for Vazquez to fully recover from Tommy John surgery to repair. He returned Friday night for the opener of the four-game series against the Blue Jays to claim a job that was always his.
“I’m here for a reason, help the team,” Vazquez said. “Like I say, I help the pitching staff. So I’m back, I’m happy for that.”
With the starting rotation still searching for consistency, Farrell was cautious not to consider Vazquez’s presence as a cure all, but didn’t shy away from the hopes that the 25-year-old catcher would be a difference-maker.
“I think there will be a positive influence by Christian,” Farrell said. “But to say that we’re putting everything on his shoulders, I think is a little bit unfair. That’s about the pitcher going out and executing.
“But what we’ve seen of him — and this is where the confidence is there for everyone — is his ability to run a game, his confidence inside a game. He brings a different energy behind the plate. There’s confidence in our pitchers when you’ve got men on base, because you feel like he’s as shutdown thrower. That goes a long way in a pitcher’s mind to be a little bit more calm and focused on the execution of a pitch.”
Vazquez built on a strong spring training with a solid five-game stint with the Pawtucket Red Sox to start the season. He hit .462 while building stamina and arm strength, and when he played in back-to-back games earlier in the week, the ongoing conversations in the Sox front office about when Vazquez would be called up ultimately came to fruition.
He switched places with Blake Swihart, who took over as Pawtucket’s starting catcher.
Vazquez is being immediately thrown into the fire, starting tomorrow’s game as well, and then getting a day off Sunday.
He didn’t wait long Friday to get involved. In the top of the second, he picked off Troy Tulowitzki to end the inning. In the bottom half, he doubled off the wall and came around to score on Mookie Betts’s single.
Meanwhile, the process of becoming an everyday catcher will still be a work in progress, Farrell said.
“With Vazqy being game ready and I think we’ve set enough markers along the way in his rehab for him to accomplish to get him back to the major league level, and he’s ready for that,” Farrell said. “We’re still going to build him out to be an every day guy, and that’s still a work in progress.”
Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski echoed the plans to be cautious with Vazquez, but said he was eager to see him on the field.
“We’ve had what we think is a conservative plan, a very careful plan and continue to have a plan with him,” Dombrowski said. “He’s not going to go out there and catch every single day for three straight weeks. We’ve been careful with him and we’ll continue to be careful with him.
“I’m very impressed with his receiving abilities. I’ve read scouting reports on him. He’s got great leadership capabilities. I’ll be anxious to see him work with the staff myself day in and day out.”
He got to see in person Friday night in a 5-3 victory all the things that the scouting report said.
Vazquez said he felt like his arm was at 95 percent — “I’m close, I’m very close,” he said.
But he answered any questions about his arm in the second inning, when he snapped a throw to first base after Michael Saunders whiffed an 0-and-2 fastball from Rick Porcello to pick off Tulowitzki and get an inning-ending double play.
“I’m feeling great,” Vazquez said. “I was trying to get the double play.”
The subtle magic, though, was in the slight of hand that Vazquez weaved all night, making sure pitches on the fringes off the zone looked like strikes in the eyes of home plate umpire Ted Barrett.
The frame Vazquez hung around a 2-and-1 pitch to Jose Bautista in the first might’ve gone unnoticed at the time — Bautista grounded to second in the at-bat, but it set the tone.
In the sixth inning, Vazquez tidied up a 3-and-2 pitch to Josh Donaldson to get a strike-three call to end the inning. Donaldson was left standing at the plate to have words with Barrett.
In the eighth, Kevin Pillar’s 10-pitch battle with Koji Uehara ended when Vazquez reined in a fastball on the edge of the plate, down and away.
The subtle fingerprints that Vazquez can leave on a game could be seen in the 55 games he played in 2014. According to StatCorner.com, his pitch framing led to 1.8 extra strikes per game and saved 12.2 runs in that stretch.
“He’s good,” said Porcello, who finished with eight strikeouts in 6⅓ innings. “If he can get you a couple extra strike calls, that’s a huge advantage, especially against a team like this, getting ahead of guys and getting some of those calls is huge.
“If you can get ahead of them and you can expand the strike zone, that’s really what you have to do.
“If you have to be in the strike zone, they’re going to get some good swings off. So his ability to be able to catch the ball and frame it and do what he does back there is huge for our pitching staff.”
Vazquez’s impact was as beneficial for Sox pitchers as it was frustrating to the Jays. After his strikeout in the eighth, Pillar as literally hopping mad, doing a double pirouette over the plate before getting face-to-face with Barrett.
“The more frustration they have works to our advantage,” Porcello said.
But beyond that, Vazquez displayed the ability to command a game and connect with his pitching staff, Farrell said. Vazquez’s 2-for-4 day at the play felt like a footnote.
“The one thing that Vazqy’s has shown when he came up for a half a year in ’14 was that, I think, he’s got a natural ability to connect with pitchers, to get the most out of them, to run a game,” said Farrell. “We saw him take timely trips to the mound. He’s got abilities. We know he can be a shutdown thrower from a defensive standpoint, but I just think in running a game he’s got a natural feel to do what I just mentioned.”
In the short time they spent together in spring staining, that’s what struck Sox ace David Price about the young catcher.
“You don’t see a lot of guys with the skill that he has,” Price said.
“Just the ability to make everything look better than it was. There’s a select few catchers that have that ability. I know a lot of them work at it and it’s something that’s tough to learn and it’s like he has that innate trait to be able to do and that’s pretty special.”