LAKELAND, Fla. — The finest game of Vince Velasquez’s career ended with another fastball — the 78th he threw — blowing past the final San Diego batter in a 3-0 Phillies win on April 14, 2016. He had 16 strikeouts, almost exclusively by pumping fastballs, for an unforgettable three-hitter in the Thursday matinee.
It was just Velasquez’s second start with the Phillies after being acquired from Houston five months earlier in the Ken Giles trade. And it was easy to dream — as the 23-year-old right-hander threw his hands to the sky after the last out — that this was the start of something special.
Velasquez threw his fastball for 69% of his 113 pitches that day, perhaps signaling that he could be an elite power pitcher. But Velasquez failed to bottle the magic of that day, which proved to be a fleeting moment instead of a harbinger.
Success, no matter how many times Velasquez tried, would not be found again by simply throwing gas. He since has been erratic instead of consistent and shuffled last season between the starting rotation and bullpen, all while chasing that special afternoon.
Now 27, with his future as a starting pitcher in the balance, Velasquez realizes that it’s time to move on.
“I’m very thankful for that day. It was one of the most remarkable moments of my life,” said Velasquez, who five days later was yanked in the fifth inning of an 11-1 loss to the Mets. “But there’s obviously a building factor to it because you can’t, in this stage right now, you can’t just be pumping fastballs. The years prior to this year, pumping fastballs didn’t do me any justice. They obviously timed my stuff. They obviously started spitting on pitches that weren’t in the zone. That’s just not the way to pitch. You can’t just throw fastballs.”
Velasquez threw his four-seam fastball for 62.44% of his pitches last season, and opponents slugged .466 against it. He reached the sixth inning in just six of his 23 starts. Throwing gas, Velasquez said, gassed him out.
Since-departed manager Gabe Kapler and pitching coach Chris Young instructed Velasquez — along with the other starters — to pound his fastball at the top of the strike zone.
“And I’d be winded after 40-some pitches,” Velasquez said.
Bryan Price, hired to replace Young, has helped Velasquez work this spring on pitch sequencing and utilizing his secondary pitches. He’s throwing a changeup in Grapefruit League games, a pitch Velasquez threw just 22 times last season. He’s keeping his pitches down in the strike zone, looking to induce weak contact, and learning how to use his fastball to set up hitters for his curveball.
“That’s the mentality, that’s the actual preparation, that’s the work that an actual starting pitcher, your quality pitcher, utilizes,” Velasquez said. “I think it all comes down to self-awareness and pretty much understanding what it is that you need to do to be that pitcher.”
Velasquez no longer is trying to ring up 16 strikeouts. Instead, he’s trying to pitch. His fastball is still as strong as it was four years ago, but he knows he needs to throw more than just heat if he wants to stick in the rotation.
“I would rather have quality starts than try to force something that’s unlikely to happen again,” Velasquez said. “That’s out of my control. That was one of those days where things were all working. Things will happen, things will click, once you figure out those quality pitches. I’d rather have complete games than throw one 16-strikeout game again.
“I think I’ve kind of gone over that hump and really stepped foot on the other side and really realized that I’m capable of being a quality pitcher, and backing it up is one of the things that you need to do. You can’t just use your words, you obviously have to show some actions, and I think this spring has been kicking off to a great start.”
Velasquez will start Sunday in Dunedin against Toronto for his third game this spring, but the first toward the race for the final two jobs in the starting rotation. Manager Joe Girardi wanted the competitors — Zach Eflin, Ranger Suarez, Nick Pivetta, and Velasquez — to pitch two games this spring before firing the starter’s pistol.
The games count now, but the early returns were encouraging for Velasquez. He’s allowed one run in his first five innings, with four strikeouts. He’s finding comfort pitching to contact, something that seemed hard to imagine when he generated 27 swings-and-misses against San Diego.
“What you find in this game is people adjust to you pretty quickly, unless you’re truly special,” Girardi said. “You’re going to have to make adjustments, too. And he’s making them.”
If Velasquez makes the rotation, his first start of the season likely would be against the Mets at Citi Field, the same ballpark where he started his 2016 season. On a chilly April night, he threw fastballs for 60.6% of his pitches. He struck out nine Mets in six innings of a 1-0 win, planting the seeds for the way he would pitch five days later against San Diego. Two early-season games provided a chance to dream, but soon, the batters would make adjustments.
And now, finally, Velasquez is making his. If he starts at Citi Field this month, he won’t look the same as he did in 2016. This time, he’ll be a pitcher instead of a thrower.