There was a game within the games Sunday at Citizens Bank Park.
The results, of course, were what mattered most to the Phillies during their pandemic-shortened doubleheader with the Atlanta Braves, and they could not have been more discouraging. The Phillies lost the opener 5-2 when the bullpen -- surprise, surprise -- imploded again in the top of the fifth inning. The Phils lost the second game 8-0 after managing just four hits off three Atlanta pitchers.
Beyond the dreary outcomes, there was also an unspoken competition between the two men who started each game for the Phillies. Game 1 featured Vince Velasquez on the mound with the long-anticipated major-league debut of top pitching prospect Spencer Howard following in Game 2.
Velasquez has built a lengthy yet unimpressive resume since joining the Phillies as part of general manager Matt Klentak’s first trade in December 2015, but there was a time when he was the great hope for the future of the rotation. In his first two starts, he pitched 15 scoreless innings, struck out 25 batters and allowed just six hits. He featured a fastball that topped out at 97 mph and a breaking ball that buckled hitters’ knees.
“A young Zack Greinke right there,” former pitching coach Bob McClure declared after Velasquez struck out 16 San Diego hitters in his second start with the Phillies in April 2016.
The comparisons to Greinke disappeared long ago, and with Howard’s arrival to the big leagues, it is possible Velasquez’s place in the Phillies’ 2020 rotation could soon vanish as well, although that’s not the most likely scenario at the moment, according to manager Joe Girardi.
“Right now, my plans are Vinny makes that next start,” Girardi said. “We’re going on a five-man rotation. Spencer came up and threw the second game of a doubleheader. I’ll sit down and talk to our coaches and Matt and Ned [Rice, assistant GM] and we’ll make a decision.”
Velasquez, who like everybody else this season has been dealt a difficult hand in terms of finding a consistent groove, said he was more concerned with fine-tuning his pitches than with remaining in the rotation.
“I’ve always said that’s not really in my thought process,” Velasquez said after pitching four innings and allowing a single run in the opening game. “My job is to go out there and pitch. I have been in [a relief] role before, so I know what it [entails]. Whatever role it is, I still have to go out there and command my pitches.”
Though the results were better in his second start than they were in his first when he quickly coughed up a four-run lead against Miami two Sundays ago, Velasquez admitted he was less than thrilled with his performance.
“Today was not really a solid day as far as commanding all the pitches,” he said. “It was pretty much a two-pitch mix – fastball, changeup. I threw a lot more pitches than I should have. I got ahead of a lot of guys and ended up not putting them away, but these guys are coming out swinging. They’re coming out with a bang and they made me throw extra pitches. I would put away guys with the curveball, but I had no command of that at all.”
His fastball sat at 92 mph and he also did not use his cutter, a pitch he developed and hoped would make him more effective this season.
By no means was it Velasquez’s fault the Phillies lost the opener. Another dreadful effort by the bullpen and a grand total of three hits by the offense played a much larger role in the defeat. But a less-than-inspiring performance by Velasquez opened the door for Howard to claim his spot in the rotation if the rookie right-hander could dominate against a difficult-to-navigate Atlanta lineup.
Howard, as it turned out, was less than dominating against the Braves, allowing seven hits, including a couple of home runs, and four total runs in 4 2/3 innings.
The rookie had enough good moments in his debut to at least make the Phillies think about keeping him around. After giving up a broken-bat single to Ronald Acuna Jr. and walking Dansby Swanson to start his big-league career, he escaped the first inning without allowing a run, thanks in large part to a nice play in right field by Bryce Harper and a three-pitch strikeout of Marcell Ozuna for the second out.
He followed that up with a perfect second inning before giving up an opposite-field two-run homer to Freddie Freeman in the third. There’s no sin in giving up a home run to Freeman, especially since it was on a first-pitch fastball that just clipped the outside corner of home plate.
Howard pitched another perfect inning in the fourth before giving up a leadoff home run to Acuna in the fifth. It was another opposite-field home run. He left after striking out Ozuna, but was charged with an extra run when reliever Trevor Kelley came on and allowed an RBI double to Travis d’Arnaud.
“Spencer, for his first start, I thought did pretty good,” Girardi said. “He was able to throw strikes. The first two guys get on and he doesn’t give up a run. He didn’t fall apart, which sometimes it’s tough to slow a young person’s mind down when it’s their first start or even their first year. I thought he handled it pretty well.”
The ugly result of the second game fell far more again on the bullpen and a lack of offense. The relief corps allowed eight runs on 13 hits in a total of 5 1/3 innings during the two games, leaving the beleaguered bullpen with a league-worst 8.10 ERA after 10 games. And just as an aside, the Phillies scored just twice on seven hits in 14 innings. Cy Young couldn’t win consistently with that sort of offense.
As for the Phillies’ bullpen blues, it would be wise to put either Velasquez or Howard in the ‘pen and the preference here would be Velasquez. Let the kid pitch in this COVID-19 season and see if Velasquez can improve the ‘pen.
“I mean, it’s something we’ve talked about,” Girardi said. “It’s something that I’m sure we’ll continue to talk about. There have been no decisions made at this point. We’ll continue to hash it out.”