S.B. High Alum Gets a Shot at the Big Leagues

A Don Turns Tiger

S.B. High alum and now Detroit Tiger Virgil Vasquez was the starting pitcher in ESPN's
Sunday night game of the week on Mother's Day earlier this year.

Like any self-respecting 25-year-old, Virgil Vasquez is looking forward to having his own place to live this winter in Santa Barbara, free from the daily presence of his parents. But unlike most folks his age, Vasquez can throw a baseball more than 90 miles per hour with pinpoint accuracy and, for most of this past summer, he was earning a paycheck doing just that as a pitcher for the defending American League Champions, the Detroit Tigers. With the regular season having wrapped up last week and the Tigers just missing out on the playoffs, Vasquez is essentially on vacation-heading home to the 805 for an off-season of home cooking, friends, and family.

But rest and relaxation is the furthest thing from the young man’s mind-after all, spring training is only five months away and the Tigers have at least one, and maybe two, openings in their starting rotation next year. Talking excitedly about his workout plans and his hopes to develop a better changeup pitch, Vasquez checked in recently on the road to Chicago for the Tigers’ last series of the year. “I can’t wait to come home and just train,” Vasquez said. “You know, work hard, get better, and be as prepared as possible for next year. : It’s just such a great community there. The energy and support in Santa Barbara is great.”

A product of Santa Barbara High School, Pony Leagues, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, the hard throwing 6ʹ3Ê° Vasquez made his big-league debut during a nationally televised Mother’s Day game in Minnesota-a storybook opportunity for a young man who credits his mom for first getting him into baseball. With his parents and assorted other family members in attendance, the man they call “Matt” took the mound as the Tigers’ starting pitcher for ESPN’s Sunday night game of the week, after coming up from the minor leagues and filling in for the injured Jeremy Bonderman. Running the count full on the first batter he faced, Vasquez gave up a hard-hit triple down the line to the Twins’ second baseman Luis Castillo. “Probably the loudest thing I have ever heard in my life,” said Vasquez of the raucous cheers that filled the Metrodome following his ill-fated 3-2 pitch, a vast majority of the 30,000-plus people in attendance rooting against the former Don’s third baseman. “I knew right then I was in the big leagues,” recalled Vasquez. “And I loved it. : I love the challenge of being in those tough one-on-one situations and trying to rise above.”

Though Vasquez’s debut ended early-he didn’t make it out of the third inning-he was summoned once again from the Tigers AAA affiliate, the Toledo Mud Hens, for another spot start on July 24 against the Chicago White Sox in which he fared much better, striking out four in five solid innings of work. From there, Vasquez made yet another call-up start in late August-this time in his native California against the Athletics in Oakland-and then stayed on with the club through the end of the season.

Well-spoken and humble, Vasquez said of his first taste of major league ball, “I am still just settling in.” While his brief performances on the big stage haven’t been what he hoped for, you get the feeling that Vasquez’s story has only just begun. Starting in high school, his game has elevated with each new level of play. While he chalks it up to setting yearly goals for himself and coaches having faith in him and giving him “some chances to play,” the fact is that Vasquez has an undeniable natural ability to throw a baseball. (He remembers with a certain degree of golly, gee-whiz how during his senior year of high school, his fastball magically picked up a mile per hour of speed each week until he was topping out at 94 mph.)

The former Gaucho has risen steadily through the Tigers’ minor league ranks since being drafted in 2003, enjoying success every step of the way-a fact that bodes well for his future prospects. As Vasquez put it recently, “Baseball is the same game no matter where you are or at what level you’re playing it.”

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