When the count reaches two strikes, the challenge becomes personal to Quad-Cities River Bandits pitcher Vincent Velasquez.
“Then, it’s a battle I want to win. I want the punch out,’’ Velasquez said.
No pitcher in the Midwest League has recorded more strikeouts than the Quad-Cities right-hander this season.
Through 75 innings, Velasquez has recorded a league-leading 88 strikeouts while walking 23 batters during a 6-3 start for the River Bandits.
“My strikeout-to-walk ratio has been pretty solid this season, and it definitely is giving me something to build on,’’ Velasquez said. “My main job though is to get outs, whether I’m striking batters out or making the most of the defensive skill of the guys who are on the field with me. Either way, I’m good with it.’’
Velasquez carries a level of tenacity with him onto the mound that is part of the makeup of the 6-foot-3 Poway, Calif., native.
The bulldog-like approach he carries with him comes naturally.
“It’s in my genes,’’ Velasquez said. “My father was a Marine and I have two brothers who are Marines. We all like to compete and that’s part of who I am. I like the challenge.’’
Two-time Cy Young Award winner Bret Saberhagen worked with an agency which advised Velasquez around the time he was selected in the second round of the 2010 draft by the Astros.
The pair talked pitching and the conversations still guide Velasquez today.
“We talked a lot about that one-on-one battle, the pitcher and the batter, and what it took to work with a catcher to win that battle,’’ Velasquez said. “That’s what you want to do with every batter you face.’’
About the only thing which has caught Velasquez off guard this season occurred last weekend when he was brought out to home plate to catch a ceremonial first pitch, unaware that his father, Leonard, and mother, Juanita, had arrived in the Quad-Cities to watch him compete as a professional for the first time in his career.
“I saw my dad run onto the field and I was so surprised. He threw a strike, too. He’s still got it,’’ Velasquez said. “I had no idea they were coming into town for the week. It was great, something I’ll always remember.’’
Ranked by Baseball America as the 13th-best prospect in the Houston organization, Velasquez has had a memorable journey to reach this point.
He posted a 2-2 record in eight outings in 2010 for Greeneville in the Appalachian League, but missed the entire 2011 season as he underwent Tommy John surgery.
Velasquez finished 4-1 with a 3.35 ERA last season in nine starts at Tri-City in the New York-Penn League and after working to build strength to work through his first full-season assignment with Quad-Cities this year, his goals for the year start with staying healthy.
“He’s making progress and in his first full season after Tommy John, competing for the full season is an important step for him,’’ River Bandits manager Omar Lopez said. “He’s making progress, started hot, has made a few adjustments in his pitch sequence and fastball command and seems to be on the right track again.’’
Velasquez counts on that.
“The setback and surgery I had tested me mentally as much as anything and I’m determined to work my way beyond it and have a successful career,’’ Velaquez said. “There are no worries with it now. I have work to do, but I’ll keep at it every time I go out and compete.’’