Phillies

Phillies 5, Rays 5: Vince Velasquez determined to improve his curveball

Phillies 5, Rays 5: Vince Velasquez determined to improve his curveball

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PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Vince Velasquez wants to be known as more than Vinny Velo in 2017.

That's why his mission this spring is to polish up his curveball.

Velasquez pitched two crisp, scoreless innings in his spring debut against the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday. He allowed a hit and struck out one. The strikeout came on one of the four curveballs that he threw.

"The curveball could be a huge factor if I could locate it and use it whenever I want," he said after the game. "If I can get strikes with my curveball, I won't have to worry about throwing a lot of extra pitches and I'll be able to get guys out earlier."

That could help him stay in games longer, thus addressing another area he needs to improve on if he's ever going to be the No. 1 starter he aspires to be.

Velasquez has the best fastball velocity on the Phillies' starting staff. He averaged 94 mph last season and topped out at 97.8, according to MLB's Statcast. Velasquez threw his curveball 13.6 percent of the time last season, but hitters feasted on it to the tune of a .297 batting average and a .581 slugging percentage.

He will have better success with the pitch if he can get it down consistently. Velasquez said catcher A.J. Ellis stressed that to him in his brief time with the Phillies last season. Ellis told Velasquez that the key to keeping the curveball down was trusting it and throwing it with conviction.

How does a guy with the stuff Velasquez possesses not trust it?

"I don't know," he said. "I have my bread-and-butter fastball and changeup. I just have some type of hesitation with curveballs. I'm afraid of leaving it up, I'm afraid of burying it, bouncing it in the dirt. If I can establish location on that pitch right now, I'm not going to have any doubts during the season. So all those fears, all those doubts, all those hesitations -- it's best to get them out now. Work on them now and when the season comes, there shouldn't be anything to worry about."

Velasquez's troubles keeping his curveball down may stem from his spin rate. Among the 117 pitchers who threw more than 200 curveballs last season, he ranked 74th in spin rate, according to MLB's Statcast.

But don't tell him that.

"Spin rate is ridiculous," he said. "I don't trust spin rate.

"I'm not too worried about my spin. I can't even throw it for a strike right now. So I shouldn't be worried about spin rate; I should be worried about my strike rate."

OK, then.

Velasquez, 24, has the ability to be a top-of-the-rotation talent. He just needs to command everything better, pitch deeper into games and develop the arm durability to be a 200-inning guy.

He believes he can do it. He said Wednesday's outing against the Rays was a good start.

"I realize my potential," he said. "That's why I'm working hard. I would love to be a No. 1 starter. I would love to be an opening day starter. But there are a lot of factors that play into it. I have a lot of work to do to show these people what I can be, and if that's a No. 1 starter, then I want to be that guy."

Manager Pete Mackanin believes Velasquez could one day be a No. 1.

"It's a matter of putting it all together," Mackanin said. "I think he has the capacity, mentally, to make adjustments and learn from his mistakes. Over time, I think he has a chance to be an ace."

The game
The Phillies rallied for two runs in the top of the ninth to earn a 5-5 tie with the Rays. Jesmuel Valentin and Hector Gomez, two projected members of the Triple A infield, both had doubles in the inning and Roman Quinn had a key walk.

Reliever Michael Mariot pitched out of a two-on, no-out jam in the bottom of the ninth to preserve the tie. Catcher Jorge Alfaro's tireless work on blocking the ball paid off as he had two important blocks to help strand a runner at third.

Aaron Altherr led the offense with a double, a triple and three RBIs.

Up next
The Phillies play the Blue Jays in Dunedin on Thursday. All eyes will be on Aaron Nola as he makes his first start of the spring (see story).

MLB Playoffs: Verlander, Astros beat Yankees to force Game 7 in ALCS

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MLB Playoffs: Verlander, Astros beat Yankees to force Game 7 in ALCS

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HOUSTON — Justin Verlander remained perfect with Houston, pitching seven shutout innings when the team needed him most, and Jose Altuve homered and drove in three runs as the Astros extended the AL Championship Series to a decisive Game 7 with a 7-1 win over the New York Yankees on Friday night.

Acquired in an Aug. 31 trade, Verlander has won all nine outings with the Astros. And with his new club facing elimination in Game 6 against the Yankees, he delivered again.

After striking out 13 in a complete-game victory in Game 2, Verlander threw another gem. The right-hander scattered five hits and struck out eight to improve to 9-0 with 67 strikeouts since being traded from Detroit. George Springer helped him out of a jam in the seventh, leaping to make a catch at the center-field wall and rob Todd Frazier of extra bases with two on and Houston up 3-0.

Game 7 is Saturday night in Houston, with the winner advancing to the World Series against the NL champion Los Angeles Dodgers.

Dusty Baker fired by Nationals after 2 NL East titles

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Dusty Baker fired by Nationals after 2 NL East titles

WASHINGTON -- Dusty Baker's time as the manager of the Washington Nationals is over after two seasons, two NL East titles and zero playoff series victories.

The Nationals announced Friday that they would not be bringing Baker back. His two-year deal with the club is expiring.

The contracts for the members of Baker's coaching staff also are finished. The team said it will work with its new manager to fill those positions.

The moves come the week after Washington was eliminated from its NL Division Series against the Chicago Cubs with a 9-8 loss at home in Game 5. The Nationals also were bounced from the postseason in the NLDS round in 2016 -- also with a Game 5 loss at home by one run, that time against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

This outcome, essentially, is what Baker was worried about as far back as spring training in February, when he made clear his desire for a new contract, knowing his was up after 2017.

Before the series against the Cubs began, Baker was asked about his possible future in Washington.

"I've given some thought to some things, but we were told that we were waiting until after the season to make a determination," he said at the time. "There's a good chance I'll be back."

He expected negotiations to pick up after the season ended (see full story).

Turner, Taylor repay Dodgers' patience by sharing NLCS MVP
CHICAGO -- Justin Turner and Chris Taylor shared MVP honors in the NL Championship Series, repaying a Dodgers organization willing to roll the dice on players whose big league careers were stalled.

In Turner's case, it was then-bench coach Tim Wallach who rediscovered him playing in a Cal State-Fullerton alumni baseball game four years ago, after his career appeared all but over.

In Taylor's case, it was Los Angeles' willingness to gamble that an offseason of grueling workouts would enable the young utilityman to rebuild his swing in a matter of months.

The co-MVPs turned up in the interview room together after the Dodgers eliminated the reigning World Series champion Chicago Cubs 11-1 in Game 5. They were champagne-soaked with hats turned backward, a pair of goggles still perched on Turner's head. Fittingly, they doused each other with praise.

"He's a dynamic player and a table setter," said Turner, who hit .333 for the series, with two home runs and seven RBIs. "When he goes, we usually go as a team."

"I talk to him as much as I can. He's one of the reasons I decided to make the changes I did," said Taylor, who finished at .316 with two homers and three RBIs. Both men also walked five times, as many as the entire Cubs roster (see full story).

Rare Jackie Robinson rookie jersey up for auction
NEW YORK -- A rare jersey from Jackie Robinson's historic rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers 70 years ago could be available for someone with a few spare millions.

The jersey, part of a Heroes of Sports offering by Heritage Auctions, has been certified by Mears, one of the top memorabilia authentication companies. It is accompanied by a letter from Robinson's widow, Rachel, saying it is the one brought home by the Hall of Famer at the end of the 1947 season, when he became the first black player in the majors and earned Rookie of the Year honors.

"This is the only one known from the `47 season, the only one that survived," Chris Ivy, Heritage's director of sports auctions, told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "It stayed in his closet for five decades plus until it was eventually sold to a private collector in the early 2000s."

The online auction opened Friday and closes at 11 p.m. on Nov. 19. The entire collection is from one owner and can be viewed on Heritage's website. Other items available for bidding include Babe Ruth's pants from the Hall of Fame induction in 1939, Keith Hernandez's 1978 Gold Glove award, a Wilt Chamberlain jersey from 1966, Bill Vukovich's Indianapolis 500 trophy from 1953 and Muhammad Ali's shoes from his fight against Ken Norton in 1973.

Ivy said the Robinson jersey has been valued at more than $3 million. He wouldn't be surprised to see it exceed that.

"It's tough to estimate a piece like this -- it's a one of a kind," he said. "As far as collectibles a rookie (jersey) is always sought after, something that's significant."