Caracas, Havana, Santo Domingo. None of those cities would cause a baseball fan to bat an eyelash while glancing through the program at players’ hometowns. But São Paulo? Brazil’s largest city would definitely elicit a double-take, yet there it was printed at Monday’s Seattle Mariners home game against the Baltimore Orioles, next to the photo of a young right-handed relief pitcher with a 100-watt smile: Thyago Vieira.
The Mariners called up the 24-year-old Vieira earlier on Monday, making him just the fourth Brazilian to play in the major leagues, and he got his first chance at baseball stardom in the ninth inning. With a blistering fastball that clocks in at over 100 mph, one of the fastest in the league, he pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning.
Also on display: cat-like reflexes. On his very first major league pitch, the Orioles slugger Chris Davis smacked a line drive heading straight for Vieira’s head. With a lightning-fast defensive move, he snagged the laser-beam aimed straight at his skull. It was the stuff of old Baseball Tonight Web Gems.
Vieira’s debut earned him a standing ovation from a dwindling Mariners crowd, providing just about the only on-field action for the home team fans to cheer in a 11-3 rout that saw the Orioles’ Dominican-American star Manny Machado jack a grand slam into the upper deck.
In a post-game interview, Vieira was quick to confirm that he had no debut jitters. What’s more, line drives to the face don’t scare him. “God protects me,” the devout Vieira said.
Although Brazil is Latin America’s most populous country, baseball ranks low on the list of sporting passions in the soccer-mad nation. Vieira’s entry into the major league makes him the fourth verde-e-amarelo to put on a glove behind catcher Yan Gomes, outfielder Paulo Orlando, and pitcher André Rienzo. And of them, Gomes – the league’s first brasileiro – is the only one still playing for a major league team.
“All Brazil’s there, I’m so happy for that moment,” Vieira said in his post-game interview when asked about the debut’s significance for his home country.
The Mariners signed the Afro-Brazilian fastball phenom back in 2010 when he was just 17 years old. While he had raw speed, he lacked control. That kept him mired in the minor leagues, although he represented Brazil in its successful effort to qualify for the 2013 World Baseball Classic as well as its failed bid to qualify for this year’s Classic. Last year, he worked closely with the Mariners coaching staff and finally managed to rein in his fastball, making him the team’s top relief prospect.
“It’s intimidating,” said catcher Tyler Marlette of Vieira’s fastball in an interview with the Seattle Times. “He’s a really big dude and he gives it his all and he’s coming at you with every pitch. It’s very violent. It’s very nerve-racking for hitters. I think that’s what makes him so effective.”
With that kind of endorsement, the Seattle management sent Vieira to represent the team at the MLB All-Star Futures Game in June.
And with a successful debut, Vieira’s place in the bullpen may be more secure as the Mariners fight for an American League wild card playoff slot.