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Published: Friday, 6/8/2007

Give Hens' Vasquez a second glance

Virgil Vasquez isn't much for first impressions.

The right-hander was pitching in the Arizona Fall League last year and lasted 12/3 innings in his first start while being touched for nine runs on eight hits.

"Eight hits?" Vasquez said. "I thought it was 11."

Hey, who's counting? Bad is bad.

He followed that by reeling off 25 consecutive shutout innings and leading his team to the championship.

See what we mean about the danger of first impressions?

Vasquez Vasquez

Vasquez, who starts tonight for the red-hot Mud Hens against Syracuse, can only hope the Detroit Tigers aren't inclined to remember too many details of his first and, so far, only major league start.

That came on May 13 in Minnesota, when Vasquez was summoned for a spot start in place of the injured Jeremy Bonderman. He lasted 22/3 innings and the Twins ripped nine hits and scored six runs.

"I did everything I could to prepare for that start," Vasquez said. "I followed my normal routine and felt I was ready, but when I stepped on the mound my body went numb. I still competed, but I could never get any feeling. I never found anything.

"But I know I'm a lot better than that. And I expect to be better when the next chance comes."

And, first impressions aside, that chance should come before too long.

Vasquez is shooting for a fourth straight win tonight, one that would improve his Toledo record to 8-2. He leads all International League pitchers in strikeouts with 71. In his last start, on the road against a potent Buffalo lineup, he allowed just three hits in six shutout innings.

Vasquez is a far cry from the guy who got bombed in Minnesota or the guy who struggled in his first couple starts after returning to the Hens.

"I think Virgil was kind of still in shock when he first got back here," said Toledo interim manager Mike Rojas. "He found out [pitch] location is pretty important in the major leagues and he still struggled with that a little when he got back. But he's a tough-minded kid. He got straightened out and we're seeing some quality starts now."

With pin-point location, Vasquez's fastball, one that tops out at 92 mph, has been just a vapor trail to IL batters. He complements it with a hard, 86-mph slider that is his most consistent off-speed pitch, as well as a curve and change-up.

A former minor league manager told Vasquez that the longer you stay in the clubhouse, the longer you stay in baseball. And the 6-foot-3 pitcher has taken that advice to heart.

He and a couple Toledo teammates live across the street from Fifth Third Field in the Commodore Perry Apartments. When the Hens are at home, Vasquez is at the stadium seven or eight hours before game time.

"I'm here pretty much 11 to 11," he said. "I love to work out. I like hanging around the coaches. I still learn stuff every day. It's fun to be here."

No surprise, considering the Hens have won 17 of their last 22 games.

Vasquez turned 25 yesterday - he hopes to celebrate with another win tonight - and thinks his career is on schedule.

"My goal each year was to move up one level," he said. "That's pretty much how it has gone. I'm here now and I've had my first shot [at the big leagues]. Hopefully, I'll go back up and stick."

That would mean making a good second impression, even a lasting one.

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