MILWAUKEE -- The first Brewers batter Vince Velasquez faced Friday night reached on a walk. The next batter slapped a single to center field.
It took just 12 pitches in a 6-4 win to begin to wonder if the Vince Velasquez Bullpen Experience was just a one-night wonder. The Miller Park crowd was building toward a fevered pitch and a tie game seemed set to be broken.
Velasquez, who learned a night earlier in a text message that he was headed to the bullpen for at least a few days, was in trouble after just two batters.
It was then that Velasquez found resolve. And his fastball. He struck out the next two batters on six pitches, all of which were fastballs. He threw 33 pitches in two scoreless innings and all but three of his pitches were fastballs. He faced seven batters and struck out four of them. Velasquez, after a shaky start, looked to have the makings of a dominant relief-weapon.
As a starter, Velasquez needed a third-pitch. He could not pitch six innings by just pumping fastballs the way he did on Friday night. That strategy is made for the bullpen. His fastball - which touched 97 mph and averaged out at 95 mph - is powerful enough to keep hitters off-balance for an inning or two. It was enough Friday night to silence one of baseball’s best lineups.
“I just tried to attack the zone,” Velasquez said of how he kept his poise. “It seemed like right above their barrels was the miss. I mean, I like going up there with the fastballs and it kind of paid off for me.”
The Phillies will decide this weekend if Velasquez will remain in the bullpen or start on Tuesday night against St. Louis. Friday night’s performance - plus the news that Pat Neshek has a sore shoulder - will make it difficult for the Phillies to not want to see what Velasquez can do as a full-time reliever.
“I think he has the stuff to succeed in any role whether we throw him out there as a starter, throw him out there as a middle relief guy, late inning guy,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “He’s got the stuff to play anywhere, you know? He’s got the stuff to get through the lineup multiple times and then the role like tonight, his stuff just plays up.”
Velasquez not only made a strong impression, but was awarded with the win. Andrew McCutchen doubled to left field in the sixth and Rhys Hoskins hit a 403-foot homer in the seventh. The Phillies have won six of their last eight games. They followed a split at Wrigley Field by opening an equally challenging series at Miller Park with a decisive win.
After Velasquez struck out the two batters in the fifth, he earned the last out of the inning when Christian Yelich was caught stealing home after trying to score when J.T. Realmuto threw to second base.
Realmuto’s throw was intended to bait Yelich into leaving third base. The play was something the Phillies practiced frequently during spring training. Three months later, here it was. Jean Segura stepped towards the throw, caught it, and fired a strong throw home to Realmuto who had Yelich out with ease. The Brewers rally ended without a run and Velasquez returned to the dugout with confidence.
“It paid off,” Realmuto said. “All that practice, pretty seamless out there. It went smooth.”
The Phillies overcame a short night for Jerad Eickhoff, who the Brewers hit hard before he was lifted after just three innings. Eickhoff allowed four runs on five hits, two of which were homers. The righthander has allowed 13 runs in his last 12 innings over three starts against the Brewers and Rockies.
Kapler pulled Eickhoff, who had thrown 77 pitches, for a pinch-hitter in top of the fourth, showing that he was going to be just as aggressive in Milwaukee as he was earlier this week at Wrigley Field.
“Eickhoff didn’t have his best curveball or his best slider,” Kapler said. “His command wasn’t great today.”
Eickhoff, with the Phillies trailing by a run, was replaced by Edgar Garcia. The call came to the bullpen for Velasquez to get ready. The fifth inning would be his. He met with Kapler before the game to get more clarification about his role. Velasquez was frustrated, but he found common ground with his manager and told Kapler to “utilize me.”
Kapler did just that. The fifth inning would begin with Christian Yelich, who earlier hit his 20th homer of the season. Velasquez’ first night as a reliever would begin with a stiff test. He then made that test even more challenging by putting the first two runners on. Velasquez, just when he seemed set to fail, passed his test with a promising night. It was a great time, he said.