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The Phillies lose to the Pirates as Velasquez falters again

The Phillies have not won back-to-back games since the end of April.

PITTSBURGH - Vince Velasquez stood powerless in a corner of the silent visitors clubhouse at PNC Park. His start against the Pirates on Saturday afternoon had deteriorated like so many of Velasquez's have before, resulting in a 6-3 loss. But this appeared to break Velasquez, a headstrong 24-year-old pitcher blessed with a golden right arm.

He is lost.

"I don't know," Velasquez said. "I'm just clueless right now. I'm just running around like a chicken without a head. I don't know what I've got to do, but I just know there's something. . . . I have to break it down little by little. Literally, if I have to start over or whatever the situation might be. I need to break it down and not put so much pressure on myself."

The Phillies have not won back-to-back games since the end of April. Their starters' failure to pitch deep into games is an overwhelming problem. Velasquez is the embodiment.

He recorded 16 outs on 103 pitches Saturday and crumbled in the sixth inning. Velasquez is a veteran of just 39 starts in the majors, so the Phillies will continue to start him until they exhaust every possible fix. That is because, hypothetically, Velasquez would provide more value in 190 innings as a rotation arm over 70 as a potential closer.

But it is difficult to detect a hint of improvement with every Velasquez start that sputters in the fifth or sixth inning. He has a 5.98 ERA this season. While with the Astros, Velasquez's future was a source of debate among front-office officials. Was he a frontline starter or a shutdown closer? Houston was split. It was one reason they parted with Velasquez in the trade for Ken Giles two winters ago.

The rebuilding Phillies are in a position to ride Velasquez in the rotation for however long they desire. They will not contend in 2017. Maybe they view Velasquez as an eventual closer, but they have time to see if he clicks in the rotation.

"I think he's capable of becoming a starting pitcher," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. "He needs to get to the point where he can handle that."

Does Mackanin need to see improvement soon?

"Well," the manager said, "we're going to go along as the season goes along and see what happens."

The initial evidence this season suggests the learning curve remains steep. Opponents have posted a .535 OPS against Velasquez the first time through the batting order, a .935 OPS the second time, and a .985 OPS the third time.

Most pitchers, not just Velasquez, lose effectiveness when facing a lineup for the second or third time in a game. But the downslide is not as dramatic as Velasquez's. His lack of confidence in his breaking pitches is one reason.

"I can't necessarily say what's going through his head," catcher Cameron Rupp said. "I don't think he loses focus. I don't think that's the issue. Maybe he tries to be too fine. He's gotten them out a certain way, and I don't know if he thinks they're going to make the adjustment before he does."

Velasquez started the sixth inning Saturday at 90 pitches. Josh Bell bounced out to second. Then David Freese walked on five pitches. John Jaso singled on a first-pitch change-up. Velasquez threw two balls to Francisco Cervelli, and Rupp worsened things with a misfired pickoff throw to second. The runners moved to second and third. Cervelli plated them with a single to left on a 3-0 fastball.

Velasquez has pitched fewer than six innings in five of his eight starts this season; 16 of his 32 starts with the Phillies have ended before the sixth.

Ivan Nova, the most efficient starter in the National League, presented a study in contrasts. The Pirates righthander used 90 pitches in 71/3 innings. Nova was not invincible but good enough.

Velasquez occupies the other extreme. He, in his own words, must "pretty much start all over."

"Stuff is just not working out," Velasquez said. "I don't know what I've got to do, but I've got to figure something out. Stuff is just not working out. Nothing is going my way.

"It's just a lack of commitment, a lack of concentration, just a lack of everything."