Derick Velazquez takes things one pitch at a time these days, as anxious as anyone to see where it all will lead.
“It just feels good to be back out there competing,’’ the Quad-Cities right hander said. “It’s been awhile.’’
The pitches Velazquez threw in the ninth inning to earn a save in the River Bandits’ season-opening 3-0 shutout of Wisconsin two weeks ago were the first the 6-foot-4 right hander had thrown in a game since 2014.
Last Friday, he earned his first victory at the full-season level with three shutout innings of work in an 11-inning victory over Kane County.
Three surgeries and two missed seasons later, Velazquez has one objective.
“I have a real love for baseball and I didn’t want to just walk away,’’ he said. “I’ve been playing this game since I was four years old. It’s been a tough couple of years. My family and the people in the organization, they’ve been there for me. I want to see this through, wherever it leads.’’
River Bandits manager Russ Steinhorn was working as the hitting coach at Tri-City in 2014, shortly after the Astros made Velazquez their seventh-round choice in that year’s draft.
The former Fresno State pitcher finished 2-1 with a 1.57 ERA in 18 appearances out of the bullpen for the New York-Penn League team that season.
Through three appearances this season, Steinhorn has seen the same reliability from Velazquez.
“I’m seeing the same guy make the same good, quality pitches,’’ Steinhorn said. “I know he’s ran into a tough stretch the past couple of years and has had to battle some adversity, but he’s worked hard to overcome that and put himself in a position to show again what he can do.’’
It wasn’t easy.
The 23-year old from Gonzales, California underwent Tommy John surgery in January, 2015.
As he attempted to work his way back, things didn’t feel right as Velazquez attempted to throw and by January, 2016, he underwent a second surgery to shave away part of his ulnar nerve.
A third operation was needed last June to address continuing problems with a pin and the ulnar nerve.
It all tested him mentally as much as physically.
“I had to keep pressing ahead,'' he said. "The motivation has been to get back on the mound. That kept me going. It’s been an ongoing process but I feel as good and as strong now as I have in a long time.’’
He still appreciates the rehab work that he put in with Astros staff members at the team’s spring training complex but was more than happy to be assigned to the Quad-Cities roster this year.
“They do a great job there and I’m thankful for all the help they gave me but I wanted to be back with a team this season, back to work.’’
Velazquez realized that was a realistic possibility about midway through spring training at the Astros’ next complex in West Palm Beach, Florida.
“Things were starting to feel the way they used to feel and my arm was feeling good, feeling strong,’’ Velazquez said. “I was starting to make the pitches the way I wanted to and the way I always have.’’
He remains on a strict pitch count and if the need is there for an extra day of rest between outings, Velazquez is getting it.
When he took the mound for Quad-Cities for the first time in the last inning of the Bandits’ season opener, Velazquez took a quick second to soak it all in before getting to work.
“I did look up, see the fans, hear them, and it was then that I realized it was happening,’’ Velazquez said. “It had been such a long time. It felt great to be back out there, making pitches and letting the good defense behind me make plays. It still feels good every chance I get. I’m here to be part of what I think is going to be a good team and do my job the best I can.’’
Steinhorn thinks that won’t be an issue.
“He’s going to be a big part of the success we have this season,’’ Steinhorn said. “He’s competing and doing the things he does well again and after what he’s been through, that’s great to see.’’
Velazquez isn’t getting ahead of himself.
“I’m just going to keep working and see where it leads,’’ he said. “That’s the only way I know how to approach it, just work and let it play out the way it plays out.’’