Phillies

Can lefty Cole Irvin steal Vince Velasquez's job? Stay tuned

Can lefty Cole Irvin steal Vince Velasquez's job? Stay tuned

KANSAS CITY — Vince Velasquez’s sore elbow has become the opportunity Cole Irvin has been waiting for.

Irvin, a 25-year-old lefty who has racked up a lot of wins in a season-plus at Triple A, will make his big-league debut Sunday afternoon against the Kansas City Royals.

Is there a chance Irvin could steal Velasquez’s job in the Phillies' rotation?

“Every time we have somebody come up and make a start it’s an opportunity to make a statement,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “It’s an opportunity to create another opportunity. Yeah, there’s a lot of competition right now.”

Velasquez said he felt some soreness in his elbow and triceps while throwing his slider in his previous outing Monday in St. Louis. Velasquez was hit hard in that game and he rankled catcher J.T. Realmuto by shaking off a significant amount of pitches (see story)

Though the soreness was not as pronounced as it was Monday, Velasquez still felt discomfort in the elbow during his bullpen session Friday. He doesn’t believe it’s serious and believes he will be back quickly. Still, the team opted to place him on the 10-day injured list.

“I threw 30-some pitches and it seemed like it was progressing,” Velasquez said of his bullpen session. “But again, there was something lingering and it didn't give me the confidence to really start on Sunday. That's when I knew I needed to say something.”

Kapler watched Velasquez’s bullpen session Friday and mentioned that the pitcher threw some good curveballs. But the Phils weren’t about to take any chances with a pitcher saying he felt discomfort in his arm.

“We’re in a fortunate position where we have good pitchers at Triple A and we can play things like this situation with Vinny very conservatively,” Kapler said.

The depth at Triple A includes Nick Pivetta. The right-hander has pitched well since his demotion and he will be back at some point. The pitching depth — coupled with Velasquez’s frustrating inconsistency — has fueled external thoughts of using Velasquez as a one-inning power arm in the bullpen.

Could that transformation happen when Velasquez is ready to return?

“The answer to that question is: I don’t know,” Kapler said. “Let’s see how Cole Irvin looks tomorrow. We’ll decide who’s going to make the next start in the rotation as we gather more information. It would be especially premature to not have the hindsight of what Cole looked like and not have a little more information on Vinny before we start making determinations that far down the road.”

Kapler added that transitioning Velasquez to the bullpen “is not something we have been grinding on. ‘Oh, what do you think of Vinny in the bullpen?’ Those conversations are not leading us right now. But this question has come up how many times over the last calendar year? He’s got lightning stuff — it plays in the rotation, it plays in the bullpen.”

For the record, Velasquez said he was committed to making it as a starter.

“I’m still a starting pitcher,” he said. “I have a lot to accomplish. I’ve still got a lot of juice in me to throw in the towel just yet. My mindset is not to throw in the towel and give up. I still have a lot of starts ahead of me. Following J.T. [Realmuto]’s lead, I think, will guide me to the right path and make me the successful starter that I am.”

Irvin was the Phillies’ fifth-round draft pick out of the University of Oregon in 2016. He was the International League pitcher of the year in 2018 and is 16-4 with a 2.50 ERA in that league since the start of last season.

Irvin is a strike thrower with a deep mix of pitches. He won’t light up the radar gun. He focuses on getting outs and does that quite well (see story).

“He’s not a dominator,” Kapler said. “He’s a guy whose game is forcing the opposition to put the ball and get weak contact.

“We’re really excited to give him this opportunity. He’s really earned it. He profiles well against a club like the Royals because he’s left-handed and can control the running game. He’s quick to the plate and very competitive when it comes to controlling the running game. He has a history of throwing strikes, of not walking batters, and I think that profiles against this club. You can’t put these guys on base via the walk. You need to force them to put the ball in play.”

Many friends and members of Irvin’s family have made the trip to Kansas City from the West Coast, including his mom, Sandy.

She will watch her son’s big-league debut on Mother’s Day.

“The joy is overwhelming,” Cole Irvin said.

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Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

CLEARWATER — Aaron Nola did not have a bad season in 2019 by any stretch of the imagination. He made every start and went 12-7 with a 3.87 ERA. There are pitchers all over baseball who would love to have a season like that.

But it's indisputable that Nola's 2019 season was not nearly as good as his 2018 season. In 2018, he was brilliant. He went 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA. He finished third in the National League Cy Young voting.

Nola's WHIP in 2018 was a sterling 0.975.

Last season, it was 1.265.

After pitching two scoreless innings in his spring debut Sunday, Nola reflected on his 2019 season.

"I didn't get ahead," he said.

He's right.

Check out the numbers.

In 2018, Nola threw a first-pitch strike 69.4 percent of the time. That ranked second in the majors to St. Louis right-hander Miles Mikolas (71.1).

Last season, Nola's first-pitch strike percentage slipped to 62.3. That ranked 39th in the majors, well behind leader Max Scherzer (70.4) and teammate Zach Eflin, who ranked fourth (68.6).

Nola ended up walking 3.6 batters per nine innings last season, up from 2.5 in his big year of 2018.

So, it's no surprise what Nola is working on this spring.

"Just fill up the strike zone and throw the ball down a lot," he said. "That's kind of the key. Get ahead of guys and stay ahead of guys. I just want to focus on having that tunnel vision around the plate."

If you've paid attention to the things Phillies pitchers have said this spring and even late last season, you know they weren't always comfortable with the practices of former manager Gabe Kapler and former pitching coach Chris Young. The theme in this camp, at least among the pitchers, can be summed up in one word.

Simplify.

"I'm just going to simplify some things and throw my fastball for strikes," Nola said. "I don't want to throw too hard too early in the count."

Nola pointed to his outing Sunday. He allowed a hit to open the game then got a double-play ball with a strike down in the zone.

"I want to try to get ground balls and I felt like I did that today," Nola said. "I got a double play and it's satisfying to get double plays."

Nola, 26, has so far enjoyed bonding with Bryan Price, his fourth pitching coach in as many seasons. Price espouses some traditional philosophies, like keeping the ball down. In that regard, he is similar to Bob McClure and Rick Kranitz, two former Phillies pitching coaches that Nola thrived under.

"That's been my mindset ever since I started to pitch and it is really stressed now," he said of pitching down in the zone. "I think that's what pitching should be and that's what we've always learned how to do.

"I think the state of the game is to simplify things and get back to that part of it. I look forward to my one-on-one bullpen sessions with (Price). When you have a bad game or not as good of a game as you want to go back to basics in the bullpen sessions. I've had previous pitching coaches like that and it has helped me a lot. Just to simplify things is going to go a long way."

Nola believes if he does a better job getting ahead early in counts that his curveball and particularly his changeup will become better weapons for him in 2020. His changeup blossomed under McClure and Kranitz during their stints in Philadelphia.

"My changeup wasn't as consistent as it was in previous years," Nola said. "I am just trying to get back to throwing that for strikes down more.

"When I'm throwing everything for strikes, I have three pitches."

Manager Joe Girardi has not named an opening day starter yet, but Nola is expected to be the guy when he does.

And when Nola takes the mound March 26 in Miami, his goal will be this:

Strike 1.

That's a big reason he had a great season in 2018 and why he slipped some in 2019.

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Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies ace Aaron Nola made his first start of the spring Sunday while their new No. 2, Zack Wheeler, is slated to debut Saturday in Dunedin against the Blue Jays.

Wheeler has been throwing to hitters at the Phils' minor-league complex.

Fifth starter candidates remain in focus as Vince Velasquez makes his first start on Monday against the Orioles in Clearwater.

Nick Pivetta, another candidate, made his first start Saturday and showed a potential new weapon.

Lefty Ranger Suarez is being stretched out as a starter and could be a dark-horse candidate for the fifth job. He will get a start Tuesday at Bradenton while Jake Arrieta starts in Clearwater that day. Suarez pitched well out of the bullpen last year but was groomed as a starter in the minors.

Zach Eflin will make his spring debut Wednesday against the Twins in Fort Myers.

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