Down to his final chance in the Phillies' rotation, Vince Velasquez is finally making the most of it.
Velasquez, a free agent after the season, is showing signs of progress as he approaches his 29th birthday. This is not the first time the Phillies have been teased by him but these circumstances are a bit different.
This is Velasquez' seventh big-league season, sixth with the Phils, and his role was unclear when 2021 began. He opened in the bullpen but replaced Matt Moore in the rotation when Moore struggled early and went on the COVID list.
After years of opportunities in thinner rotations, Velasquez is seizing one. It doesn't mean he'll stick for 20 more starts, but it's definitely his job for now.
Velasquez pitched well again Friday night against another tough lineup in the Blue Jays. He allowed one run over 5⅔ innings on an opposite-field solo shot by Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Velasquez has a 1.59 ERA in his last three starts, which came against the Brewers, Braves and Jays. It's the first time in his career he's gone at least five innings and allowed no more than a run in three straight starts.
"I talked to (pitching coach) Caleb Cotham the other day and I just told him I have a simple direction of where I'm going," Velasquez said Friday night. "It's just a matter of preparation, you're only as good as you prepare. And I think the consistency factor has shown because of the work I'm doing on a daily basis.
"I just have a sense of direction."
Velasquez had it all working in Dunedin, Fla. against the Blue Jays. His fastball averaged 93.5 mph and maxed out at 96. It was the crispest his heater has looked all season. His slider was tight, and his changeup kept the Blue Jays off-balance, even though there would ideally be more than five mph of separation between fastball and changeup.
"I think the changeup and fastball mix tonight was the best command, and then throwing them off with a curveball when I needed to," Velasquez said.
Velasquez has made a point of throwing his fastball inside during this successful stretch and he did it again Friday. More importantly, he's commanded the pitch. It hasn't veered too far inside to be non-competitive, and it hasn't missed too far out over the plate. Bo Bichette looked particularly frustrated after seeing a couple of pitches up-and-in during one of his plate appearances.
"It's been really impressive," Rhys Hoskins said of Velasquez' recent work. "It's nice to see him go late into the games because we know that's been a problem for him in the past. He's using his stuff. And he was down in the zone. When he's down, he gets a lot more swings and misses like he did tonight. They knew his stuff was good. They took quite a few fastballs for strike three and that's when you know a guy has good stuff, when the hitter's looking for other things.
"Credit to him. It's never been about the effort or work ethic with him. He's just had a lot of ups and downs in his time here. It's been nice to see the work pay off for him, especially after not getting an opportunity right out of spring. It's easy for someone to put their head down and hope for an opportunity elsewhere, but he didn't."
Velasquez was talked about as a trade candidate all offseason because of his lack of a role here, his $4 million salary and the upside/depth every team seeks for its rotation. That conversation has subsided as now, the Phillies need him.
"That's all I wanted was just another opportunity," Velasquez said, "and to take off and run with it."