Vazquez can't shake ghosts of 2004

NEW YORK -- If Javier Vazquez's image from 2004 wasn't permanently emblazoned in the psychosis of New York Yankees fans, he could easily get a pass for Friday night. But that is not Vazquez's lot in life as a Yankee.

The 2004 ALCS Game 7 grand slam by the Red Sox's Johnny Damon put the worst postseason collapse in baseball history on the most prestigious franchise's ledger. No matter what Vazquez does, that little bit of trauma is always one bad start away from resurfacing; especially when it is against the Boston Red Sox.

So when Vazquez folded on Friday night as he and the Bombers bumbled the ball around in a 6-3 loss to the Red Sox, the brains of Yankees fans must have been altered like a scene out of "Inception." The 2004 nightmare moved to the frontal lobe, like a sharp knife.

The shame of it for Vazquez was that Yankees fans were just starting to like him.

Friday night might end up being no big deal, but the Yankees entered this weekend thinking about putting the Red Sox all but mathematically away.

Despite all their injuries, the Red Sox have outplayed the Yankees since the two teams since last faced off in mid-May. Boston won the game, 7-6, to improve to 20-20. The Yankees fell to 25-14 that day.

Since then, Boston is 43-27 while the Yankees are 42-27. Just like 2004, the Red Sox aren't dead yet. In third place, they are five games behind the Yankees.

Vazquez's six runs (three earned) in 5 1/3 innings doesn't eliminate the fine work he's done over the past two-and-a-half months, but it does raise the question: Can Vazquez be trusted in a big game, in a big spot; especially against Boston?

When Vazquez looked like the worst pitcher in baseball early on, the Yankees definitively answered no. They skipped him in May, admitting they didn't think that Fenway was the proper place to try to get it right.

On Friday, Vazquez came in with confidence, but without his fastball and a strong enough voice. Vazquez took the blame for the little second-inning pop-up in front of home that Francisco Cervelli dropped and led to the unearned three runs in the inning.

"It was an easy play for me if I called it," Vazquez said.

What was more troubling was Vazquez's velocity was missing. It was noticeably down and no one from manager Joe Girardi to Vazquez knew where it went.

"I wish I knew," Vazquez said.

Since the Yankees skipped Vazquez in early May, he has been arguably the team's second best starter behind CC Sabathia. Heading into Friday's start, Vazquez was 8-4 with a 3.29 ERA since being passed over. If those 90 1/3 innings had begun from Opening Day, Vazquez would have been a borderline All-Star.

The difference for Vazquez before and after being skipped has been his velocity. Early on, when hitters crushed him, Vazquez couldn't touch 90 mph on his fastball. On Friday, Vazquez had trouble amping up.

In the first, after two groundouts, the Red Sox's David Ortiz smashed a 3-2, 87-mph fastball. Vazquez needs to be at 89 mph to beat a guy like the rejuvenated Ortiz. It is only two miles, but it makes all the difference.

"I can't tell you exactly why," Girardi said of Vazquez losing the speed on his pitch. "It was down a little bit tonight and it is something we will look at."

In the second, Vazquez started the problems, but he had help later in the inning. Against Adrian Beltre leading off, Vazquez avoided his fastball. Instead, he chose his slider and his change. On the third slider of the at-bat, Beltre doubled.

After an out, Vazquez failed to call off catcher Cervelli on the tiny pop-up in front of the plate. Cervelli dropped it as Vazquez approached in horror.

After a strikeout, Vazquez looked as though he might escape.

Instead, he became wild. He walked the next two batters to force a run home.

Against Marco Scutaro, Vazquez tried to win the at-bat with the fastball. Finally, on a 1-2 pitch, Vazquez reared back and hit 88 on the gun, but Scutaro pulled it for a two-run double.

In the sixth, highly touted Red Sox rookie Ryan Kalish hit his first career homer, a two-run shot off of Vazquez.

Vazquez left, beaten down again by the Red Sox. He can never erase 2004. But if he wants to make it fade a little, starts against the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians won't do it. It is putting away Boston. The Red Sox aren't planning on going anywhere.

"We are going to play until they send us home," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said.

Vazquez could have put the process a little further along. In the long run, Friday night might not mean anything. If it does, a regular-season version of 2004 just began and Vazquez is in the middle of it all. Again.

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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