PHOENIX — Given the way things have gone this season for Vince Velasquez, it might have seemed like Monday night’s performance came straight out of left field.
Really, though, it had been building for a while.
Making his seventh start since re-entering the Phillies’ rotation — and the first since his memorable left-field cameo last Friday night — Velasquez completed seven innings for the first time in almost exactly a year. He held the Arizona Diamondbacks to two runs, too, and the Phillies emerged with a series-opening 7-3 victory here at Chase Field.
In so doing, the Phillies inched ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals to the top of the National League wild-card standings, where they are tied with the Washington Nationals.
"Did I prove something? I mean, yeah, I did," Velasquez said. "I'm a pitcher. I just made the pitches that I needed to and got the ground balls I needed to and taught myself a little bit. It shows that I could do it and I could go deep into games."
But there was something else that looked a little different about Velasquez. He broke out a pair of skinny uniform pants tapered to his legs — he even referred to them as “tights” — that he said he custom-ordered after the all-star break.
“It’s a different look,” Velasquez said, laughing. “I had some family friends back at home that said, ‘Why don’t you change it up a little bit?’ I was like, ‘All right, I’ll try it out.’ I started wearing, I guess, the tights, if you want to call them that.”
If Velasquez modeled new pants, Bryce Harper batted by the seat of his pants. Holding his bat at a different angle after experimenting during batting practice, he picked up two hits, including a single in a two-run third-inning rally in which the Phillies took a 3-1 lead.
“I don’t know. I just felt like doing it," Harper said. “It just felt good, so I went with it. I did it in my last round of BP and it felt good, so I did it in the game."
Whatever works, right?
Although the Phillies finished with 13 hits, it was Velasquez who set the tone. He lacked his usual velocity, averaging only 93.3 mph on a fastball that has averaged 94.5 mph this season. But he pitched to contact, recorded outs quickly, and got through seven innings for the first time since Aug. 3 of last season against the Miami Marlins. He also said he made a mid-game adjustment to better locate his fastball at the top of the strike zone, as the Phillies have been stressing with him since before the all-star break.
Most importantly, though, Velasquez kept the ball in the ballpark.
"This was one of the first times this season where he seemed to have gotten better as the game matured," manager Gabe Kapler said. "Around the fifth inning the velocity started ticking up a little bit. You saw him really executing at the top of the zone. Earlier in the game, he was struggling to get that ball up there. Really good job by Vince. He stayed efficient throughout and really gave us a chance to win that game."
Or, as Harper put it, "He was lights-out tonight."
Velasquez also appeared energized after his turn in the outfield in the 14th and 15th innings three nights earlier, in which he threw out a runner at home plate and nearly cut down another. He bounced around the mound and made an alert, athletic play to field pitcher Merrill Kelly’s bunt, fire to third base to get the lead runner and start a double play in the fifth inning.
"He kind of carried some of the confidence from the outfield play over into tonight," Kapler said. "I think he likes being known as the best athlete on the field, and he looked like it tonight."
Don't look now, but Velasquez is also starting to resemble a more reliable back-of-the-rotation starter again.
The Phillies have worked with the 27-year-old right-hander on elevating his fastball above the strike zone to allow fewer home runs. In his last three starts, he has given up four earned runs and only one homer in 17 2/3 innings. He has a 3.68 earned-run average in his last seven starts and has given up eight homers, although four came in one game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"You make a well-located pitch, they're going to end up popping it up or they're going to end up giving you the ground ball that you need," Velasquez said. "That's just how pitching is. It's not always going out there and trying to blow it by guys, because you're going to end up making mistakes and they're going to end up capitalizing and doing some damage."
Said Harper: “Every time he goes out there he’s going to come with heat and he’s going to throw strikes. As long as he stays within himself and does what Vinny can do, we’ve all seen what he can do. It’s pretty special.”