Vince Velasquez walked off the field Tuesday night to a decent ovation, a deserving reaction after he pitched the first seven innings of a 4-3 win over Miami. He struck out seven, walked none, and allowed just two hits and no runs.
But the fans in South Philadelphia knew as they cheered Velasquez that the Phillies still needed six outs from a bullpen that had seven blown saves in the previous six games. Velasquez was excellent, but forgive the crowd if the roars were a bit subdued as danger seemed near.
And then something strange happened. The bullpen protected the lead. It wasn’t easy -- Jose Alvarado threw a wild pitch in the eighth, was asked by the umpires to wipe both arms, and allowed a two-run homer -- but it was progress.
Six difficult and challenging outs against one of baseball’s worst lineups is not enough to trust to the bullpen, but it was better than Monday when Phillies relievers turned a two-run lead into an eight-run deficit at Cincinnati.
“I have confidence in my guys even though we’ve had a lot of hiccups,” Velasquez said. “I think there’s a lot of light at the end of the tunnel.”
The Phillies are still three games below .500, five games back of first place and losers of nine of their last 14 games. But they’re not yet buried and the division is weaker than expected. A reliable bullpen -- as proved over the last week -- can provide the difference. The bullpen was far from reliable on Tuesday, but the Phillies will take it.
“The way I look at it is we would’ve lost that game last week or on the road trip,” manager Joe Girardi said. “We won the game tonight. That’s the bright spot of it.”
The Phillies scored twice in the bottom of the seventh, providing needed insurance runs and alleviating some of the pressure on a unit that leads the majors in blown saves.
Connor Brogdon recorded the first two outs of the eighth but was lifted for Alvarado after issuing his second walk.
Alvarado, the closer, promptly walked the first batter he faced and threw a wild pitch that brought in a run. The umpires then requested that Alvarado use a towel to wipe off his arms, which paused the game and might have allowed Alvarado the chance to collect himself. The second pitch he threw after that resulted in an inning-ending groundout.
“You’re not allowed to put rosin on your non-throwing hand on your wrist,” Girardi said. “For me, I can put rosin on my [right wrist] but I can’t put it [on my left wrist]. Just out of habit, that’s what he did. On a night where it’s so hot, it’s hard for pitchers to keep that sweat off their throwing hand.”
Velasquez allowed just two baserunners and retired the final 13 batters he faced. It was just his second start without a walk since September of 2019 and the first time since August of 2019 that he recorded an out in the seventh inning. Girardi said it was the pitcher’s best game of the season.
Velasquez had a 2.30 ERA in a six-start stretch earlier this season but entered Tuesday with a 7.97 ERA in his last five starts. He’s struggled to find consistency throughout the last six seasons, but this year has been especially maddening. His six-start stretch was the best prolonged success of his career, but he quickly struggled again. Tuesday night provided optimism that Velasquez can give the Phillies something every fifth day.
“I think today was a solid example of what I can do,” Velasquez said. “Knowing that I didn’t give any free passes, and trusting my secondary pitches, and having that fastball command, and letting the hitters just get themselves out. In this game, we make it a little more difficult within ourselves, but I think if you stay in the moment and control what you can, you can do a lot of things. This was the building stage for myself.”
The current starters -- Velasquez, Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Zach Eflin, and Matt Moore -- now have a 0.30 ERA in their most recent starts as they combined for just one earned run over their last 30 1/3 innings. Spencer Howard, who started Monday night in Cincinnati, was demoted to triple A. For now, the Phillies will ride these five pitchers.
“We’ve talked about our starting pitching all year. They went through a little rough spot,” Girardi said. “But we’ve gotten a lot of really good performances out of them during the course of the season. Obviously, to stay in it you have to have someone dial up a start every night. That’s what you need to do. You have to pitch extremely well. They’re on a little bit of a roll now. Let’s keep it going.”
Alvarado started the ninth by allowing a leadoff single to Jesus Aguilar and a two-run homer to Adam Duvall. He had entered the game an inning earlier with the Phils ahead 4-0. The lead was now down to just one. The trouble that seemed near when Velasquez left the game had arrived.
But Alvarado recovered. The next two batters grounded out before before Alvarado fired a 96 mph cutter -- his 33rd pitch of the night -- past Jorge Alfaro for the final out. It was Alvarado’s first save since being designated as the team’s new closer. It wasn’t easy, but the Phillies will take it.
“I’m not one to sugarcoat anything, but I’m saying our guys are here for a reason,” Velasquez said. “I think if the guys know exactly where they’re at and where they need to be, it’s endless. There’s a lot of optimism. There’s a lot of hiccups here and there, but I think we’re turning the page. This was the day I felt like we needed to do something. We needed to start over.”