Phillies

Vince Velasquez: 'I'm clueless right now, running around like a chicken without a head'

Vince Velasquez: 'I'm clueless right now, running around like a chicken without a head'

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As tough as Philly fans are when an athlete is underperforming, Vince Velasquez is harder on himself than pretty much anyone else could be.

Some pitchers would be at a loss for words after suffering yet another poor outing but Velasquez (2-4, 5.98) on Saturday was the opposite, baring his soul while admitting he doesn't have all the answers.

Velasquez came out firing at PNC Park, getting ahead of every hitter in the first inning and striking out three of the first four batters he faced. 

But as is often the case with Velasquez, a couple dominant innings at the beginning of a game did not settle him in or set the tone for the afternoon.

"I guess no matter what or how I feel, there's no adjustments being made at all," Velasquez said after the Phillies lost, 6-3, to the Pirates and falling to 15-25 (see Instant Replay).

"In the game, it's just a lack of commitment, a lack of concentration, just a lack of everything. I mean, jeez, even my golf game is a lack of everything. I don't know. 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've got to break it down little by little. 

"Literally if I have to start over, whatever the situation might be. I need to break it down and not put so much pressure on myself. I think that's one of the hardest things is that I do apply a lot of pressure (on myself). Just tough situations. I've just got to get out of them. Take a deep breath, step off the mound. … It's just tough."

The main adjustment Pete Mackanin and the Phillies need to see from Velasquez is better command of his secondary pitches — his curveball, slider and changeup. He threw 32 of them Saturday and only 16 were strikes.

He has a dominant fastball, no doubt about it, but that is far from enough for a starting pitcher to succeed.

"He just has trouble commanding his secondary pitches," Mackanin said. "He needs to command his secondary pitches. Once he does that, hitters can't sit on his fastball. He's got a real high swing-and-miss percentage on his fastball. I think he's second to (Max) Scherzer. 

"Players don't square up his fastball but when you can't command or show the command of your secondary stuff, then they just keep looking for the heater. And if you make mistakes with it, it gets hit. So his challenge is to start gaining better command of his breaking balls.

"If he throws a slider to a hitter and he swings and misses at it and it's out of the strike zone, he's got to have the ability to throw another one in the same location instead of just throwing a fastball."

It's almost as if the early strikeouts for Velasquez are a bad thing. His starts often seem to go like this:

• He blows his fastball by guys early and falls deeper in love with the pitch.

• His command starts to wane the second time through the order.

• Hitters know to expect the fastball, especially in favorable counts because they know Velasquez does not command or trust his offspeed pitches.

• And then come the runs.

"I like going deep into games. Unfortunately, it's just not happening," Velasquez said. "I like the fact that I threw over 100 pitches (Saturday). I'm capable of throwing over 100 pitches. … Unfortunately, I just didn't do my part. 

"Nothing is going my way. I'm making pitches, guys are just hitting it. Executing pitches down in the zone, guys are hitting it. I'm elevating balls, guys are hitting it. I don't know what I've got to do to get these guys out because these guys just have my number the whole time. Everyone pretty much does. Even the pitcher probably has my number down. I don't know. I've just got to talk with [pitching coach Bob McClure] and just pretty much start all over."

The Phillies, on a 61-101 pace a quarter of the way through the season, have the luxury — if you want to call it that — of giving their young players chance after chance to improve. So, no, Velasquez is not in danger of losing his rotation spot yet despite the widely-held belief that he'd be more effective as a closer.

But he can't improve by relying on one pitch all the time. Look at Velasquez's opponent Saturday, Ivan Nova, as an example. Nova, who already has two complete games this season, threw just 91 pitches in 7⅓ innings. Velasquez threw 103 in 5⅓ innings.

Nova, whose fastball was two full miles per hour slower than Velasquez's on Saturday, threw 18 first-pitch strikes to work ahead of hitters and was able to go deep into the game by getting quick out after quick out.

Velasquez is not going to transform overnight into a sinkerballer like Nova, but he's got to find the balance between power and finesse. If he doesn't, his future will be as a reliever, whether he likes it or not.

"I think he's capable of becoming a starting pitcher," Mackanin said. "He needs to get to the point where he can handle that. There's a lot involved — finesse, your repertoire to go late into the game has to be pretty varied. And right now it's not varied enough. It's pretty much as simple as that."

If only it seemed so simple to Velasquez.

2 unique pitching matchups await Phillies at Wrigley Field vs. Cubs

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2 unique pitching matchups await Phillies at Wrigley Field vs. Cubs

As the Phillies begin a seven-game road trip to Chicago and Milwaukee, two interesting pitching matchups await. 

In tonight’s series opener at Wrigley Field, former Cub Jake Arrieta opposes the pitcher his ex-team chose to pay instead of him: Yu Darvish. 

In Game 3 of the series, left-hander Cole Irvin is opposed by left-hander Cole Hamels in Hamels’ first-ever start against his former team. The Phillies are the lone MLB team Hamels has never faced. 

The Arrieta-Darvish comparison has been an interesting one. Neither pitcher has lived up to the price tag so far. 

In 40 starts as a Phillie, Arrieta is 14-15 with a 3.98 ERA and 1.30 WHIP. His ERA has been 7 percent better than the league average over that span. The Phils did not expect they were getting the Cy Young version of Arrieta, but expectations were certainly higher than an ERA barely better than 4.00 for the ninth-highest paid pitcher of all-time in annual salary. 

What Arrieta has given the Phillies that Darvish has not given the Cubs, though, is durability and consistency. Arrieta has allowed three runs or fewer in 23 of those 40 starts as a Phillie, keeping them in the game more often than not. The same cannot be said of Darvish, who has been limited to just 17 starts as a Cub and has a 5.05 ERA with them. 

Darvish missed most of last season because of injuries to his triceps and elbow. He pitched just 40 innings. 

This season, Darvish has struggled mightily to throw strikes. He’s walked 33 batters in 42 innings and completed six innings once in his nine starts. He’s still racking up the strikeouts, though, and is coming off a season-high 11 against the Reds. The previous two games, he walked 11. 

There is a lot of contract left for Darvish, but so far it’s played out like a major mistake for the Cubs, who did almost no spending this past offseason because of the big-money deals already on the books and the dough that will soon need to go to Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and eventually Willson Contreras. 

Between Darvish and Jason Heyward, the Cubs committed a total of $310 million and an average of $44 million per year. Those two contracts are two major examples of why free agents are being paid differently these days.

Last June when the Phillies went to Wrigley Field, Arrieta did not pitch. He didn’t face the Cubs at home, either, so this will be the first matchup since his departure. The best days of Arrieta’s career came in Chicago and he’s still beloved there for the no-hitters, the Cy Young season and World Series ring. And he doesn’t hold any ill will toward the Cubs for making the choice they made last winter. 

"I knew that there was always an opportunity to come back here until I signed with another team," Arrieta said in the visiting dugout at Wrigley last summer. "It was a very chaotic offseason for free agents, not only myself but everybody involved. When Theo (Epstein) did call, it seemed like it could've been a possibility but just the way it all went down, I was leaning more and more to the side of probably not returning to Chicago. 

"Would it have been great if I signed here? Yes. Am I happy with the way things worked out ultimately signing with the Phillies? Absolutely."

Tonight begins an important series of starts for Arrieta, whose next three opponents will be the Cubs, Brewers and Cardinals, three of the best offenses in the National League. Despite the degree of difficulty, these are the kinds of games a contending team hopes to get quality starts from its $75 million man.

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Will we see Scott Kingery start in center field regularly?

Will we see Scott Kingery start in center field regularly?

Sunday was Scott Kingery’s first career start in center field and it came in his first game back. Kingery was sidelined for a month with a hamstring strain that was worse than the ones suffered by Jean Segura and Odubel Herrera. 

Kingery fared well in his return. There were no issues in the field, and at the plate he went 1 for 3 with a walk and a stolen base. The hit was a smooth line drive to left field in his first at-bat. 

With Herrera not providing much at the plate (.234 batting average, .297 OBP), Kingery will continue to see time in center field. It doesn’t make sense right now to sit Cesar Hernandez for him given how hot Hernandez has been for the last month. But Herrera and Maikel Franco are different stories. 

Kingery will not start Monday night in Chicago. The Phillies are monitoring his workload with him fresh off the IL. He will, however, likely start multiple games in the Cubs series. The Phillies face lefties Jose Quintana, Cole Hamels and Jon Lester in consecutive games Tuesday through Thursday. Seems like a logical spot to sit Herrera for Kingery. 

Kingery was hitting .406 when he was sidelined. He started the season looking like a completely different player than last season. 

“The most important thing (while I was out) was trying to keep my timing,” Kingery said after the Phillies’ 7-5 win over the Rockies Sunday. “As soon as I could pick up the bat I was in the cage, working on my swing, fastball machine, doing whatever I could, seeing live arms BP-wise and stood in on a few bullpens just to see some different pitches. That's about all you can do when you're hurt. I feel good now.”

Defensively, Kingery will face some adjustments. Center field is not his natural position nor does he have extensive experience there. But his speed, range and instincts give him a chance to be an above-average defender there. 

“I think the main goal is my arm slot has always been for an infielder,” Kingery said. “So I have to work at getting a little more over the top and get a little more carry on the ball. I'd say that's one of the most important things for me right now.”

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