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Vasquez eager to compete for bullpen spot

Atlanta Braves outfielder Jason Heyward (22) will likely start the season batting leadoff. (Reuters)

Atlanta Braves outfielder Jason Heyward (22) will likely start the season batting leadoff. (Reuters)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — After spending seven years in the minor leagues without so much as a sniff of the majors, Luis Vasquez doesn’t intend to let a recently strained side or back muscle affect his bid for a spot in the Braves’ bullpen. Not when the sidearmer finally has a legitimate chance to make a big-league team.

“It’s nothing big,” said Vasquez, who strained a muscle, believed to be a latissimus dorsi, while pitching in a playoff game in late January in the Dominican Republic winter league. “I felt something and stopped. … Right now I don’t feel nothing. But I have to wait to see the doctor before I can start throwing.”

He has yet to be examined by a Braves physician because he only reported to camp Monday, five days late due to problems getting his visa in the Dominican. Vasquez could be cleared to join workouts this week if he clears the exam.

As eager as manager Fredi Gonzalez and Braves officials are to see him, they want want to make certain he’s OK first. They think the former Dodgers prospect, whose stock ascended after he became a sidearmer two years ago, has a chance to join a bullpen that’s been among the majors’ best for several years while plugging in two or three new arms each season.

“Absolutely,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “What we saw in winter ball, he was the most talked-about pitcher down there.”

The Braves signed Vasquez as a minor league free agent after scouting him in the Dominican winter league, where he had a 1.56 ERA and .086 opponents’ average in 22 relief appearances, with 19 strikeouts and three walks in 17 1/3 innings.

Vasquez, 27, was going nowhere in the Dodgers’ system until two years ago, when he began to throw sidearmed and suddenly had good movement on his high-90s fastball.

HEYWARD LIKELY AT LEADOFF: Gonzalez has already been asked multiple times about Jason Heyward and whether he plans to bat the big right fielder in the leadoff spot. The answer, at least for now, is yes.

“If you had to start the season tomorrow, I think you would run him out there,” Gonzalez said. “Everybody talks about the lineups and the lineup is something that’s not in concrete. You can start with one lineup and finish with a different one.”

In 2013 the Braves exhausted seemingly every leadoff option before turning to the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Heyward in August. He proceeded to thrive in the role for 3 1/2 weeks before having his jaw broken by a fastball.

Heyward hit .322 (38-for-118) with nine doubles, six homers and a .403 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot.

PASTORNICKY EASING BACK: Utility infielder Tyler Pastornicky is coming back from knee surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament in August and might be limited for a couple of weeks. Pastornicky is running and hitting but hasn’t been cleared for activities involved lateral movement and cutting.