Jerry Vasto Continues His Underdog Story from Henry Hudson to Professional Baseball
LAKEWOOD - Jerry Vasto knows the odds of making it to the big leagues as a 24th-round draft pick are long, but it's not like beating them is anything new to him.
Vasto pitched at tiny Group I Henry Hudson for a program that has had patches of success in its history but has often struggled. He then took his talents to Division II Felician College, where his brilliant career was enough to put him on the radar of the Colorado Rockies, who selected him in the 24th round last year. He is now a pitcher for the Asheville (N.C.) Tourists, the Rockies' low Class A affiliate, who will wrap up a series with the Lakewood BlueClaws on Tuesday night.
"A lot of people overlook you,'' Vasto said. "I definitely go out there with my chip on my shoulder. I don't want to say you're just a guy because they picked you for a reason, but you've got to make a name for yourself more than the higher-round guy might have to."
Vasto saw his first action of the series on Monday night when he struck out the lone batter he faced, Lakewood's Herlis Rodriguez, on four pitches in the eighth inning with the Tourists trailing 8-2. He showed a fastball that hit 92 miles per hour and a slider at 86 in sitting Rodriguez down. For the season, Vasto has a 2.08 ERA over 11 relief appearances, striking out 21 in 13 innings while walking six.
"I've definitely been working on trying to throw everything with movement and downhill,'' he said. "You can't throw flat breaking balls or hanging changeups in this league or they will get hit hard."
Vasto, who was Henry Hudson's first MLB draft pick since 1986, began his high school career at perennial power Christian Brothers Academy as a freshman before deciding to transfer to Henry Hudson, the smallest school, enrollment-wise, in the Shore Conference. He wanted to play with his twin brother, Nick, who had been cut from the team at CBA and returned to their hometown school.
"It's pretty cool to see how far he's come,'' said Tom Lynch, who was the coach at Henry Hudson during Vasto's career. "The most gratifying part is that he had the opportunity to play at CBA but chose to come back to a small school and still achieved his dream."
The Vasto brothers became a force on one of the best Henry Hudson teams of the past 20 years, as the Admirals reached the Central Jersey Group I final in 2010 before losing a 5-4 heartbreaker in nine innings to Robbinsville. Vasto went 4-for-4 with three doubles and an RBI in the loss.
"We still talk about that game,'' Vasto said. "It was a heart-breaker for sure."
"Guys will still text me talking about how that game will still pop in their minds,'' Lynch said.
At Felician, which is coached by former Keyport star Chris Langan, Vasto flourished after Langan turned him into a pitcher full time, as he also played first base. The 6-foot-1 lefty helped lead the Golden Falcons to a Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference championship and an NCAA Division II National Regional appearance as a redshirt junior last year. He also established his draft profile by increasing his top fastball velocity from 87 miles-per-hour as a redshirt freshman to 94 mph as a redshirt junior.
"It's just been great to see the progression he's made,'' Lynch said. "We never rode him at Hudson, which kept his arm fresh. He only threw 100 pitches in a game once, and we usually kept him around 80."
During his red-shirt junior campaign, Vasto went 6-3 with a 1.84 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 68 1/3 innings while walking 29 and allowing 53 hits to earn CACC Pitcher of the Year honors. His biggest transition to professional baseball was learning to come out of the bullpen after having been a starter for his whole career.
"I knew getting drafted that I was going to be a reliever,'' Vasto said. "It took a little bit to know your body, know how long it takes to get hot and get loose. After you do it for a couple weeks, it's like second nature. Also, you have to throw every day. In college if you're a little sore, you might take the day off, but here you throw every day, so you have to get used to it."
The Rockies organization stresses keeping the ball down and refining sharp breaking balls because Coors Field is where fly balls turn into home runs and curveballs can flatten out due to the altitude. In 2014, Coors Field was the best hitters' park in the big leagues, according to ESPN's Park Factors statistic.
"They definitely talk about keeping the ball down because they're trying to get guys going up to Denver with the altitude adjustment, so they want you getting ground balls and not trying to do too much,'' he said.
Vasto is just trying to make his way up the organizational ladder, and he savored a great moment on Monday when he returned to a park he went to as a fan while growing up, and one he last played in during the Shore Baseball Coaches Association Senior All-Star Game in 2010.
"I definitely have a lot of pride being from Henry Hudson,'' he said. "I have a lot of teachers, old coaches and guys I haven't seen since high school come out. Knowing I have my whole town behind me helps, and it's great to be back for a few days."
At 6-foot-1, Vasto doesn't fit the profile of the usual 6-foot-6, Clayton Kershaw-style prospect, but if he continues to put up numbers like he has so far this season, he will keep getting closer to proving people wrong once again and living his dream.
"Getting drafted was a huge accomplishment for me,'' he said. "I want to play as long as I can until someone tells me I can't. Paychecks are definitely small and a lot of it goes towards your rent, but it's fun. You're out on a field every day, so you can't really complain.
"I'm around six foot (tall), and I'm still one of the smallest guys on the team. It comes into play sometimes as far as projection, but at the end of the day you've got to just go out there and pitch. Get outs, and things will take care of themselves."