Phillies

'Buddies' with Kapler, Velasquez feels like new pitcher

'Buddies' with Kapler, Velasquez feels like new pitcher

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Vince Velasquez lit up the room like he lights up radar guns Wednesday morning. He talked enthusiastically about how good his arm feels, about how he has come into Phillies camp with a new mentality after last season’s struggles. He mentioned that his musical tastes include The Temptations. He talked about eating healthier this winter, learning “a few little Mexican recipes” from his mom and cooking for himself.

The 25-year-old pitcher sounded a lot like he’d spent the winter worshipping at Gabe Kapler’s altar of positive energy.

In a way, he had.

“We communicated a lot,” Velasquez said of his new manager. “Like we were buddies. Like, ‘What’s up, how are you doing, how’s your day going?’"

Mind you, Velasquez spent the winter in Southern California and Kapler in Philadelphia.

But Kapler made a point to keep in touch with his players via text.

“It was frequent,” Velasquez said. “Not every manager would hit you up on a regular basis to check in on you and see how you were doing. A little small talk like that can give you that little boost.”

Now that camp is open, Kapler is doing his communicating face to face. He bounces from the field to the clubhouse to the weight room as if he's on an imaginary pogo stick.

Velasquez remains impressed.

“It’s amazing how one person or just one human being can change your ways by creating a different vibe,” Velasquez said. “I love it. It’s amazing how much he brings to the clubhouse and just how live it is right now. This is the first day and we’re already bumping music. We have a whole different approach going into spring training and that’s something that enlightens us and gives us something to look forward to. It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be a really interesting year, a really fun year.”

Last year was not fun for Velasquez. For the second straight season, he failed to harness the electricity in his powerful right arm. He struggled to pitch through the middle innings. And he had health issues. A blood clot in his pitching arm ended his season in early August. He is healthy now — and firing. Kapler gushed about seeing Vinny Velo throw in the bullpen on Tuesday.

“Velasquez stands out to me as a guy who looks incredibly healthy and strong,” Kapler said. “The stuff was coming out with electricity. He was commanding his pitches. His presence was strong.”

Having so much down time last season forced Velasquez to take stock of himself as a pitcher. He said he reflected on the times when he would struggle and how those struggles would cause him to lose focus. He believes he will look back at those struggles as growth experiences.

“Injuries don’t really help as far as doing what you need to do to get back out there, but they do help you learn from standing on the sidelines and looking from the outside in,” he said.

He added that he has learned techniques to slow the game down when things are going haywire. For example, he said he now can back off the mound and sing a song to himself. Something from The Temptations.

“I’m old school,” he said with a laugh.

Velasquez came to the Phillies in December 2015 as the centerpiece of general manager Matt Klentak’s first big trade. Ken Giles went to Houston in that deal and helped the Astros win the World Series in October.

The Phillies banked on the potential of a power arm when they acquired Velasquez. He showed that potential when he struck out 16 San Diego Padres in April 2016. Big things were expected from Velasquez last season, but he sputtered. He made just 15 starts and averaged less than five innings. His ERA was 5.13. His walk rate jumped to 4.3 per nine innings from 3.1 in 2016 and his strikeouts slipped to 8.5 per nine from 10.4.

The combination of Velasquez’s power stuff and his inconsistencies has led to almost constant speculation that he could end up in the bullpen someday. He might be an excellent one-inning guy someday, maybe even a closer. But that conversion is not in the current plan. Starting pitching is valuable and the Phillies, for now, remain committed to developing a starter. Velasquez is happy about that, but he knows this is a big year in proving himself.

“It is,” he said. “But I know what I'm capable of. I feel like I can really fulfill this spot and do what I like to do and that's be a starter. I have nothing but confidence.”

Despite averaging under six innings per outing last season, Velasquez has set a high personal bar for the coming season.

“Two-hundred innings,” he said. “I’m really excited. I don’t have the exact words to put it into play, but I’m really looking forward to having a bounce back year.”

How far Aaron Nola and Phillies have come in 366 days

How far Aaron Nola and Phillies have come in 366 days

BOX SCORE

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A year ago Friday, Aaron Nola carried a 4.76 ERA into his eighth start of the season. It may be hard to remember, but there was uncertainty then with the 25-year-old. He was coming off a 2016 season when he was hit around for most of June and July and then spent the rest of the season on the DL with an elbow injury. 

Early into 2017, he hadn't yet gotten his mojo back.

When Nola dominated the Cardinals over 7⅓ innings that night, little did we know he was beginning a historic stretch of 10 consecutive starts allowing two runs or less in six innings or more.

The story on Nola has changed significantly over these last 366 days. Whereas a year ago it was unclear whether he'd live up to his potential, he's now solidified as an ace of a major-league staff who has well exceeded it.

And whereas that win on June 22, 2017 improved the Phillies to 25 games under .500, this win capped off the fourth straight series win for a surging team. 

Nola made another impressive start Saturday, limiting the Nationals to two runs over six strong innings. Both runs came in the first. After a leadoff single in the second inning, the Nationals went 0 for 14 off Nola until he exited. 

The Phillies' 5-3 win made Nola 9-2 on the season. He's allowed two runs or fewer in 12 of his 16 starts. 

Over the last calendar year, Nola is 17-8 in 33 starts with a 2.86 ERA and 228 strikeouts in 211 innings. Ace-like production.

Any pitcher with that resume would be lying if he said the last year hasn't made him more confident. Nola certainly is.

"I feel like I'm learning more about myself, my body, learning more about the game," he said Saturday. "I feel like I just need to keep adding on though, the more I keep pitching. I think it's pretty cool."

After this weekend, the Phillies aren't back in D.C. until the end of August. But Nola will return to Nationals Park sooner because he'll undoubtedly represent the Phillies in the All-Star Game July 17.

It's an honor he's earned. To this point, the only two NL pitchers having better seasons are Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom.

It's a testament to how good Nola has become that on an afternoon in D.C. when he felt like he had little, he still pitched well against a dangerous 1-6 of Adam Eaton, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Daniel Murphy and Trea Turner.

"You're not gonna have your stuff all the time," Nola said. "Most of the time you're gonna have two pitches, really hope to have three pitches with command of all of them. Some days you feel like you have not much at all. That's kind of what I felt today. But it's all about competing and battling and that's what I did today."

That's what the Phillies have done for the last two weeks. They've won nine of their last 12 games, and after starting June with a 1-7 record, they're 10-10. 

The offense has come around, the defense has gone a little while without being sloppy, and the starting pitching continues to keep the Phillies in games.

Perhaps we need to rethink the ceiling for this team. Not because of one 4-for-4 game from Maikel Franco (see first take) or a weekend series win in the nation's capital, but because of how well the Phils have held their own against top competition. They're 21-23 against teams .500 or above and 20-10 against losing teams. A formula like that can get you to October.

"The hitting's been off the charts, scoring runs like crazy," Nola said. "We're playing really good baseball."

June has been a disastrous month for the Phillies for years. Since 2012, they're 70-117 in June. But this time, the struggles didn't last the entire month. The Phils were able to turn it around after falling to 32-30 and are now eight games over .500 for the first time since May 31.

Have these last two weeks changed the conversation about the 2018 team?

"It may change the external conversations," Gabe Kapler said, "but internally, whether we went through this stretch and got beat up a little bit or went through this stretch and came out in a really good spot, we're still the same, high-quality team."

Another series win for Phillies during unlikely June turnaround

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AP Images

Another series win for Phillies during unlikely June turnaround

BOX SCORE 

Remember all that talk about the Phillies' grueling June schedule?

They're meeting the challenge.

After Saturday's 5-3 win over the Nationals, the Phillies are 9-3 in their last 12 games and have won four straight series over the Rockies, Brewers, Cardinals and Nats.

On May 28, the Phillies embarked upon a 32-game stretch during which the worst team they'd face was a game under .500. The Phils are 24 games into that stretch and have gone 12-12. 

They opened June by losing seven of eight games yet have worked their way to 10-10 on the month.

At 41-33, the Phillies are 1½ games behind the Braves and 1½ ahead of the Nationals.

Nola bounces back

After failing to complete five innings for the first time in 36 starts last Sunday in Milwaukee, Aaron Nola rebounded and held the Nationals in check over six strong innings.

Nola allowed a pair of runs with two outs in the first and a leadoff single to Wilmer Difo in the second, then the Nationals went 0 for 14 against him the rest of the way. 

Nola is 9-2 with a 2.58 ERA in 16 starts this season. In 12 of them, he's allowed two runs or less.

Franco's big day

Huge afternoon for Maikel Franco, who went 4 for 4 with three singles and a double.

Franco scored in the second to tie the game, scored in the seventh to put the Phillies ahead and drove in a run in the eighth to give them a three-run cushion.

Both times he crossed home plate, he barely scored after aggressive sends from third-base coach Dusty Wathan — one on an RBI single from Nola, the other on a sac fly from Jesmuel Valentin. On the game-winning, seventh-inning sac fly, Bryce Harper caught the ball with his momentum coming toward the plate and fired home but Franco narrowly eluded catcher Spencer Kieboom's tag. The Nationals challenged but the call was upheld.

Thievery

The Nationals went 1 for 2 stealing bases against Nola, who has been on the mound for more steals (14) and attempts (18) than any pitcher in the majors this season.

Wilmer Difo swiped second in the second, but Jorge Alfaro ended the fifth inning by nailing Harper. Alfaro has thrown out 14 base stealers to lead the majors.

Going away from Altherr

Nick Williams got another start at right field and went 1 for 3 with a double.

Since June 10, Nick Williams has started nine games and Aaron Altherr has started two.

Altherr has just 20 at-bats in the Phillies' last 11 games.

Hard to argue with how Gabe Kapler is divvying up the playing time. Altherr is still hitting just .180 through 211 plate appearances, while Williams has hit .263 with an .833 OPS since May 1.

It was also telling that with the game tied and a man on third with one out in the seventh inning, Kapler opted to use Valentin instead of Altherr to pinch-hit for Nola.

Up next

The Phillies are on Sunday Night Baseball for the first time since Aug. 4, 2013.

They face the Nationals on ESPN at 8:07 p.m. with Nick Pivetta (4-6, 4.08) opposing Jefry Rodriguez (0-0, 4.66).

Pivetta allowed six runs while lasting just one inning when he last faced the Nats here on May 4. Without that game, his season ERA would be 3.45.

Rodriguez is making his second career start. He allowed five runs in five innings and was taken deep twice Tuesday vs. the Orioles.