One outing — one at-bat, really — changed everything for the Brewers’ Claudio Vargas in 2009.
Before he stared down St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols with the bases loaded on Sept. 3 in St. Louis, Vargas regarded himself as a starter first and a reliever second. But Pujols grounded out, the Brewers held on for a tense, 4-3 win and Vargas’ mindset began to shift.
“That changed me,” Vargas said before heading home to the Dominican Republic for the winter. “From then on, I was pitching late in the game in those tight situations.”
He figures to see more of those situations again in 2010. Vargas was scheduled to be in Milwaukee for a Friday afternoon physical, the final step toward finalizing a one-year contract to return to the Brewers in 2010.
Vargas, 31, has already been on one Brewers Opening Day roster — in 2007 — but he was a starter then. The team reacquired him last July from the Dodgers to pitch in relief, and that’s how they view him moving forward.
For the first time, that’s fine with the right-hander.
“When I got back here, they needed me right away in the bullpen,” he said. “I didn’t really make any changes, but in my mind, working out of the bullpen was a little fresh. Now, I know that I’m only pitching out of the bullpen.”
And pitching pretty well. In 28 games for the Brewers after the July 31 trade (Milwaukee sent Double-A catcher Vinny Rottino to L.A. in the deal) Vargas posted a 1.78 ERA and held opponents to a .175 batting average.
The switch in his head flipped, he said, in that Sept. 3 game against the Cardinals. The Brewers were trying to hold a 4-2 lead when St. Louis slugger Pujols stepped to the plate with the bases full of Cardinals and two outs.
Entering the at-bat, Pujols was 9-for-13 with the bases loaded in 2009 and 6-for-15 lifetime against Vargas with three home runs. Vargas engaged in a seven-pitch battle that went on much longer because of three timeouts — one called by Brewers catcher Mike Rivera and the others by Pujols.
Pujols finally swung at a fastball running in on his hands, and sent a groundout to third baseman Casey McGehee. Vargas went back out for the eighth inning and surrendered a Matt Holliday home run, but the Brewers held on for a one-run win that had the feel of a pennant race.
Vargas called it, “the most intense moment I’ve been in in the big leagues,” and his manager knew the feeling.
“Getting Pujols out with the bases loaded, you ought to get a save for that, at least,’ Brewers skipper Ken Macha said.
“You wouldn’t even know that he wasn’t a reliever before,” said fellow Brewers starter-turned-reliever Carlos Villanueva. “You see his composure, the way he handles the pressure. It sure felt like we were coming out on top every time he’s in there.”
The save that day was reserved for Trevor Hoffman, who struck out Pujols on three pitches in the ninth inning. Hoffman has already re-signed for 2010, and will be at the back end of a bullpen that features co-set-up men Todd Coffey and LaTroy Hawkins. Vargas projects as a mid- to late-inning option along with right-hander Villanueva and left-hander Mitch Stetter. Returning right-hander David Riske has the inside track on the other available slot.
Vargas has been burned by the Brewers once before. He was stunned to get released on March 25, 2008 in a move that saved the team close to $3 million. That made last July’s trade back to Milwaukee all the more surprising.
“But the best thing that happened to me was the trade, because who knows if I ever would have gotten to pitch for the Dodgers,” Vargas said. “It’s not easy, because when you fail with the bases loaded or late in the game, it’s over. But I started to get those opportunities, and I did my best.”