Scottsdale, Arizona —— I vividly remember the first time I saw Jerry Vasto pitch.
It was a year and a week ago, in one of the final days of minor league spring training, during an intrasquad scrimmage on a backfield at the Colorado Rockies’ facility in Scottsdale. These intrasquad scrimmages count for nothing, and yet they count for everything: the media and the general public knows not what to look for, but the Rockies’ front office is evaluating every single move made by every player during these “meaningless” games.
Baseball careers are made and destroyed in these behind-the-scenes moments. Organizational guys and fringe prospects either solidify a spot on a full-season team when camp breaks later in the week, get held back in the purgatory that is extended spring training, or worst of all, get released on the final day of March, forcing a moment where they must reckon whether they will ever play baseball again.
And so Jerry Vasto entered this scrimmage, the final pitcher to throw on this day. His group of High-A Colorado Rockies prospects held a one-run lead over the Low-A group with three outs to play. The other games on the backfields had ended, so a few dozen players, front office members, and a handful of fans remaining in camp migrated over to watch. It was the perfect time for Vasto to make an impression by locking down the final innings. And yet it was just a scrimmage; if he messed up, no one would see it. Well, no one other than every member of the Rockies’ player development staff.
Things didn’t start well.
Facing Low-A outfielder Mylz Jones, Vasto quickly worked ahead to an 0-2 count before throwing a spinning slider right down the middle. Jones didn’t miss.
The ball glanced off the very top of the wall in left-center field, and Jones ended up on third base. Scrimmage or not, a lead-off triple in a one-run game is not exactly the beginning of the best first impression.
But then a cool thing happened: Vasto buckled down.
Infield prospect Carlos Herrera stepped to the plate and, with the infield drawn in to cut the run down, Vasto induced a ground ball right back to the mound on a 1-2 count.
Not much changes between no outs and one in this situation; as catching prospect Hamlet Marte stepped to the plate next, the Colorado Rockies’ High-A infield remained drawn in and on high alert.
And yet you might as well have pulled ’em off the field.
On three straight pitches—good afternoon, good evening, and good night—Marte was gone.
The infield was free to return to normal depth, and yet Vasto still couldn’t relax even with two outs as catching prospect Steven Leonard walked to the plate. After all this hard work, it’d be a letdown to give up a cheap hit and bring in the game-tying run with one out left.
Leonard put together a good at-bat, fouling off a pair of tough pitches and working a deep count, but it wasn’t enough.
And so that was my initiation to Jerry Vasto, at an anonymous backfield scrimmage where nothing—and everything—was on the line after a leadoff triple in the final frame of a one-run game.
Impressed, I mentioned him to the staff of Purple Row — some of whom promptly accused me of making up the name “Jerry Vasto,” arguing there was no way that was the real name of a real baseball player. That light-hearted joke continued through the summer, more centered on ribbing me over focusing on minor leaguers than on Vasto himself. The pitcher caught wind of the inside joke at some point too, but I think he wasn’t quite sure why a blog was questioning his existence. Understandable.
And yeah, maybe there was a broad, bizarre truth to it: Vasto was far from a prospect, having been a late-round pick out of tiny Felician University in New Jersey. Up until that moment, a year and some change into his pro career with no experience above Low-A, maybe Vasto didn’t exist, insofar as the Rockies’ future plans were concerned.
But boy, what a difference a year makes.
In the last twelve months, Jerry Vasto has stared down every late-inning situation with the poise as I saw on that throwaway day last year. He started in Modesto and racked up ten saves, a 1.38 ERA, 36 strikeouts, and a California League All-Star game nod in 26 innings of work for the Nuts. A mid-season promotion to Double-A Hartford saw him earn ten more saves, strike out 34 more batters and pitch to a 3.03 ERA over 31 appearances to finish out the year.
The Rockies were so impressed by it that they used an Arizona Fall League slot on the lefty, and he whiffed nine more hitters in 8.2 innings there, recording another save and getting to see where he stood among the best prospects in baseball. And tonight, he’ll begin 2017 with the Albuquerque Isotopes, the organization’s Triple-A Pacific Coast League affiliate, just one step away from the big leagues. A good few months on the mound, a need in the Major League bullpen, and Jerry Vasto might soon find himself pitching for the Colorado Rockies in Denver.
Yeah, he exists.
“My goal last year was to get to Double-A, and I did that, and then I got invited to the Fall League, so I’m going to keep grinding this out as long as I can,” Vasto told me in a conversation at the end of the AFL season. “I know I’ve come a long way, and I’ve worked really hard, and I’m trying to prove people wrong. I was a 24th round pick, but just because I wasn’t a top five rounder, that doesn’t mean I’m going to sit back and let guys jump in front of me. I’m trying to get a spot on the big league team just like everybody else.”
If Jersey Shore is an overdone caricature that imperfectly tries to capture a bizarre sub-section of New Jersey life, Jerry Vasto feels like the real thing. An Italian kid from Monmouth County, he has a crooked smile, a little swagger, and the accent you’d expect from that part of the country. He’s soft-spoken about it, but you can see the pride he carries—for his family back home, for his college program at Felician, even over being the one guy from New Jersey trying to find his way through an endless world of prospects from California, and Arizona, and Florida, and the Dominican Republic.
“I try to keep a chip on my shoulder when I’m pitching, when I’m working out, when I go home for the offseason, everything I do there’s a chip on my shoulder and the Rockies notice that,” Vasto said. “They always bring that up, how I’ve got a little tenacity. They say I pitch like I’m from Jersey. And yeah, ever since high school I’ve always tried to prove people wrong.”
It’s all a feel-good story to this point, but beginning tonight against the Salt Lake Bees, Jerry Vasto has some work to do.
He’s now in the highest level of the minor leagues after blowing right through High-A and Double-A. He gets to test himself against dozens of big league veterans in Albuquerque, at an elevation a shade north of 5,300 feet, in one of the toughest pitching environments in all of professional baseball. Pitchers get crushed in the unforgiving Pacific Coast League, and now this underdog with a chip on his shoulder gets thrown into the mix against players on average five years older—and, in many cases, with ample big league experience under their belt.
To say this will be a challenge is an understatement. Add a new role to all this, and Vasto’s to-do list only gets longer. After all, even though he racked up 20 saves across two levels in 2016, the Rockies already have more than enough 95 mph-or-more firepower fighting for ninth inning roles in the upper levels of their organization. Vasto isn’t one of ‘em.
“The Rockies told me if I ever get up there [to Denver], it’d probably be to get lefties out, and then eventually I would need to prove myself for a bigger role,” he said. “That’s something I’ve been trying to do every year, prove myself. Luckily I proved myself as a closer [in 2016], and then I got up to Double-A as a set-up guy and once [Matt] Carasiti left, I got that job, and I was happy about that. But I know I need to get lefties out, and I take a lot of pride in getting lefties out.”
“Man, I grew up watching Boone Logan pitch when he was on the Yankees, and then I remember seeing him my first spring training, I was star struck,” Vasto continued, laughing. “I grew up loving him and watching him pitch. I wanted to be like him.”
Listen close and you can hear Colorado Rockies fans groaning at that line about Boone Logan, who just wrapped a miserable, over-paid three-year tenure in Colorado. But that earlier version of Logan from a few years ago—the one so formative for a young Jerry Vasto growing up on the Jersey Shore—was filthy coming out of the New York Yankees’ bullpen. If Jerry Vasto becomes that version of Boone Logan, that wouldn’t be so bad.
“I had some tough situations in Double-A where I had to come in and face some tough lefties, and I’m ready for it,” Vasto said. “I love facing lefties, and I’ll do whatever I have to do to get to the big leagues. Whether that’s coming in and throwing the sixth, or the seventh, or the eighth, or coming in to face a lefty, I don’t care what it is. I’ll do whatever they want me to do.”
Loyalty matters when you’re an Italian kid from the Jersey Shore. It hasn’t been lost on Vasto that the Colorado Rockies took a shot on him in the 24th round back in 2014 following a stellar amateur career at Felician, for whom Vasto still clearly holds a special place in his heart. Nor has it been lost on the lefty that instead of sticking him in long relief and forgetting about him for a few years, the Rockies gave him the opportunity to throw meaningful innings across his entire minor league career to this point.
“The Rockies treat me just like anybody else, they don’t treat me like I’m a 24th rounder,” he said. “They treat everybody the same, and that’s important. I’m really happy to be a Rockie. It’s working out for me.”
And just as loyalty matters to a Monmouth County kid like Jerry Vasto, so too does family. After that spring training appearance, as I waited to interview him for the first time, Vasto spent 20 minutes talking and taking pictures with family members who had come out to Scottsdale from New Jersey to see him pitch in an intrasquad scrimmage. And after our conversation in the AFL—in the same Arizona town as our initial meeting, just seven months later—a man in a New York Yankees t-shirt yelled at me as I shook Jerry’s hand and walked back down into the dugout.
“That’s Jerry Vasto from Jersey, remember that name,” the man called out in a thick Jersey accent, a smile beaming ear-to-ear on his face. Vasto walked over to him, smiling sheepishly and obviously a little embarrassed that the man, whom I quickly discerned was an uncle, was petitioning for pro-Jerry Vasto media coverage.
As Jerry got up to him, the man turned away from me and back to the lefty.
“Everybody’s following you back home, we’re following every game,” he said to Jerry, the smile still plastered across his face. “Everybody is so proud of you.”
I turned away, not wanting to listen in on their family conversation. A few minutes later, walking out of the stadium and across the parking lot to my car, I realized there was a smile plastered across my face, too.
Yeah, I thought to myself as I drove away, Jerry Vasto exists, all right.