ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Rick Kranitz noticed it early. Vince Velasquez wasn’t just complementing his power fastball with a good changeup. He was throwing the changeup down in the zone.
“It’s a great pitch for him because it gets his delivery intact,” the Phillies pitching coach said. “He really has to finish his delivery if he’s going to keep it down and be effective with it. So if his changeup is down in the zone, I know it’s going to be a good day for him because his delivery is right.”
It was a good day — make that night — for Velasquez and the Phillies on Friday. They prevailed, 2-1, over the Tampa Bays Rays for their fourth straight win and sixth in the last seven games to improve to 7-5 (see first take).
Manager Gabe Kapler pulled a lot of strings and his charges made him look good with some timely execution. Four relievers got seven outs after Velasquez pitched 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball as they kept the game close then eventually protected a one-run lead in the ninth. Kapler went with Scott Kingery over disappointed Maikel Franco (see story) at third and Kingery delivered a huge hit in the top of the ninth. The manager did not pinch-hit for frequent strikeout victim Jorge Alfaro and the rookie catcher delivered the go-ahead hit in the ninth. There was also a nifty bit of defensive positioning with Odubel Herrera in center field.
After a 1-4 start against the Braves and Mets, the Phillies have cleaned up on the lowly Marlins, Reds and Rays. But, hey, you can only beat the team that the schedule-maker sends your way — and Brother Gabe was pumped after his team’s fourth one-run win of the young season.
“If we’re going to be a good team, we’re going to win ballgames like this,” he said. “We’re going to kind of stick our nose in it and get dirty with the opposition. These are the games you have to grind out. Your starting pitching has to take you deep in the game and your bullpen has to come in and do the job, which they did. We executed on all fronts.”
Kingery struck out in the fifth and seventh innings. That convinced him to ease up on his swing against hard-throwing Alex Colome in a tie game in the ninth. Kingery swung at a high, 95-mph heater and clubbed it for a one-out double.
“Earlier in the game, I probably would have swung under that ball because I was too big,” Kingery said. “The easier swing allowed me to get the barrel on it.”
Two batters later, Alfaro, twice previously a strikeout victim, delivered a two-out single to left on a 1-2 pitch to score Kingery with the go-ahead run. Kapler said he had confidence in Alfaro and did not consider pinch-hitting. In the bottom of the inning, Alfaro made a nice catch at the backstop for a big out that helped Hector Neris notch the save.
Velasquez took a no-decision, but his second straight strong outing was key to the win. He walked just one and struck out seven.
“All winter and in spring training we talked about how if everybody takes a step forward, we can be a good baseball team,” Kapler said. “This was a big step forward for Vinny. He was efficient and got stronger as the game went on, his velocity held up, he landed his secondary pitches for strikes. Excellent performance.”