Vince Velasquez’s start could have unraveled Tuesday night in the third inning when he walked two consecutive batters to load the bases. At least, that’s when the pitcher’s night would have spoiled in previous seasons. But there seems to be something different this season about Velasquez, who again pitched with poise in a 2-0 win over Miami.
He threw four pitches to Jesús Aguilar, Miami’s slugging first baseman, and ended the at-bat with a curveball that was lined out. The inning was over, the bases were left stranded, and Velasquez’s night did not unravel. He pitched six scoreless innings and allowed just three hits and three walks.
It was the kind of start the Phillies needed, hours after they placed Bryce Harper on the injured list. They had lost seven of their last nine games and Miami’s ballpark has not been kind to them. A crucial nine-game road trip could have started to spiral with a loss.
Leave it to Velasquez, who started the season in the bullpen, to provide a steady hand.
“We’ve had a little bit of adversity thrown our way in the last week, two weeks,” said Rhys Hoskins, whose two-run homer in the fourth inning provided all the offense the Phillies needed on a night when they got just two hits. “It’s time for people to step up. Vince stepped up for us tonight.”
Velasquez has a 2.30 ERA this season in five starts since returning to the rotation and has been the team’s biggest surprise. And his success pitching with men on base is a big reason.
Phillies manager Joe Girardi said Velasquez has worked intently with pitching coach Caleb Cotham on pitching out of the stretch. It became apparent that he had been more comfortable using a full windup.
“A lot of times he would be rolling along and then when someone got on, we saw it in spring training, he kind of lost the zone,” Girardi said. “They worked hard on it and he’s been very good in those situations. Those are the most important situations.”
In his starts, opponents are hitting just .102 (4-for-39) with runners on. It’s the sixth-best mark among major league starters -- a shade better than the Mets’ Jacob deGrom, and 168 points better than Velasquez’s career average before this season.
“I’m not giving up. The inning’s not over,” Velasquez said. “I think there’s been times in the last couple years where I’m a power pitcher and I’m going to try and get you out with my fastball. But I’m giving myself different outlets and options to choose when it comes to utilizing my secondary pitches and having the conviction to throw them in those situations.”
The Phillies stashed Velasquez in the bullpen at the start of the season as an extra arm in case a need arose in the rotation. The expectations were not grand as Velasquez seemed to be out of rope after posting a 5.52 ERA last summer in six starts. Yet he’s more than just an extra arm.
“I don’t think the guys in the clubhouse are surprised,” Hoskins said. “...You can tell that he and the catchers are on the same page a lot more. It doesn’t seem like he’s shaking them off as much. I think that adds to the confidence that he has in his pitches. And obviously, he’s getting good results. It’s been awesome to see.”
It was Velasquez’ first start since he was scratched last Thursday with a numb right index finger. He tested the finger a night later in a relief outing and everything felt fine. The finger was not an issue on Tuesday.
“I’m going to have to deal with it. It’s going to have its good days and bad days,” Velasquez said. “Today, here in Miami, it just felt like it was perfectly normal. It was a little freak accident and I know how to cope with it.”
He bettered Sandy Alcantara, who allowed just two hits in eight innings as he carved through the Phils’ lineup. But the right-hander’s one mistake was enough for Velasquez. In the fourth inning, Hoskins dragged Alcantara into a seven-pitch at-bat and ended it with his 410-foot homer.
“It seems like every time we face Sandy, it’s A-plus stuff,” said Hoskins. “...He made a couple good pitches early, I fouled off a couple tough pitches, and I finally got one in the middle of the plate. You can’t miss those in the middle of the plate, especially against a guy of Sandy’s caliber. I didn’t miss it.”
Alcantara averaged just 3.30 pitches in the Phillies’ 25 other plate appearances. He worked quickly, struck out just four, and induced plenty of weak contact. Hoskins made him work, fouled off two straight pitches with two strikes, and then lifted the homer to left. The Phillies would not have another baserunner as their next 16 batters went down in order. But it was enough.
Velasquez was followed by Sam Coonrod, Jose Alvarado, and Hector Neris as each delivered a scoreless inning.
Tuesday night was Velasquez’s fourth straight start to reach the sixth inning. He retired the first two hitters -- Jazz Chisholm and Miguel Rojas -- before again facing Aguilar. Velasquez had thrown 89 pitches. This would be it for him. Aguilar grounded Velasquez’s fourth pitch to third base, ending the inning, and capping another excellent start for Velasquez. He stepped off the mound, pointed to the crowd, and hushed a fan. This seems like a different Velasquez. And a heckler had no chance to crack his poise.
“They were talking about me being a high-school pitcher,” Velasquez said. “I’m like ‘All right. Cool. Yeah, I came out of high school, but what did you do?’ You know what I’m saying? But that’s not the point. It just kind of happened and I have more respect than that. I’m not one of the guys to even do something like that. I’m very humble.”