PHILADELPHIA — Chicken was on the menu in Toronto last Thursday when Red Sox manager Alex Cora asked Christian Vazquez to come along when he met an old friend for lunch.
It was retired Blue Jays star Carlos Delgado, who was back in town for a charity fund-raiser.
Vazquez had fallen into a slump brought on by trying too hard to hit his 20th home run. Cora thought talking to Delgado would help his catcher.
Delgado’s 473 home runs are the most by a player from Puerto Rico and only Carlos Beltran has more RBIs. So, of course, Vazquez sat up straight and paid attention.
“That’s a big name in Puerto Rico, Carlos Delgado,” Vazquez said. “He’s an idol. I wanted to hear what he had to say.”
The slugger had a simple, if unexpected, message: Stop trying to hit home runs.
“We were talking about trying to reach milestones and all that,” Cora said. “Carlos talked to him and said, ‘Dude, the less you try the better it’s going to be. Hit the ball the other way like you do it. Don’t put pressure on yourself.’ ”
Vazquez didn’t play Thursday night. But he was 2 for 3 with a walk and a double on Saturday against the Philadelphia Phillies and on Sunday homered twice and drove in a career-best five runs in a 6-3 victory.
Make it 21 homers for Vazquez. He joined Carlton Fisk, Rich Gedman, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Mike Stanley, and Jason Varitek as the only Sox catchers to hit that mark.
Fisk did it three times, Varitek twice, and the others once.
At 29, Vazquez is having his best offensive season, hitting .273 with a .781 OPS over 127 games.
In a 1-1 game, Vazquez came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in the third inning and drove a curveball from Jason Vargas over the fence in left field for his first career grand slam.
His second homer, also to left field, came off Mike Morin in the sixth inning on a fastball. The two home runs and five RBIs were career highs.
“He’s having a terrific season,” Cora said.
As he hits for power, Vazquez also has cleaned up his defensive play by cutting down on the number of wild pitches and passed balls that were happening with him behind the plate.
“He wasn’t as sharp as he usually is,” Cora said. “He has some high goals, but we have to push him.”
Vazquez arrived in the majors in 2014 on the strength of his defense and that had slipped this season. The Sox addressed it.
Vazquez felt he was jumping at the ball instead of shifting to let his body block it. The adjustments were subtle but needed.
“The last month and a half, defensively, he’s been the guy we envisioned,” Cora said. “Blocking balls, throwing people out, taking charge behind the plate.”
The Red Sox have been no picnic for their catchers this season. They’ve used 15 starting pitchers and had 28 games during which the bullpen worked six or more innings. But Vazquez has hung in there.
No Sox player was more excited about Cora being named manager than he was. They knew each other well from the Puerto Rico winter league and there was great mutual respect.
“We have a great relationship,” Cora said. “I feel like although he’s a player, I see him as a little brother.”
But Cora’s fondness for Vazquez ended at the lineup card last season. Sandy Leon started 12 more games for the Sox and Vazquez chafed at losing a job he thought was his.
“I’m always tough with him,” Cora said. “We’re from the same country so he better play well.”
Vazquez earned the job back in spring training and has held it since. At the same time, his relationship with Cora has strengthened to a point that even their families are close.
But Delgado was needed to pinch hit with some advice. Cora, after all, never hit more than 10 home runs in a season.
“You need to hit the ball hard. If it goes out, it goes out. If it’s a double, it’s a double. You don’t control that,” Vazquez said.
Vazquez never expected to hit 20 home runs in the majors. Five was his most before this season.
“Maybe 10,” he said. “But 20? Come on, man.”
But there’s a baseball headed home with him to prove it.