When you're fighting for the playoffs, you should probably never find yourself in a situation where you have to use a position player to pitch two innings in a tie game, or a starting pitcher to man left field.
That happened to the Phillies Friday night in a 15-inning, 4-3 loss to the White Sox.
Vince Velasquez had been waiting a long time to show off the full scope of his athleticism. It has been evident in the way he fields his position on the mound and runs the bases, but Friday was an entirely different story.
As the meek offenses of the Phillies and White Sox continued to make outs and a tie game reached the 14th inning, the Phillies ran out of pitchers and extra men. Ranger Suarez, new to pitching out of the bullpen, could not get loose. Zach Eflin, also new to the bullpen, felt soreness in his triceps after completing two scoreless innings.
It left Phillies manager Gabe Kapler with limited options and he chose to pinch-run for Eflin with Velasquez after Eflin had reached base in the top of the 13th. As a result, Velasquez stayed in the game in left field and out came Roman Quinn, again, to pitch. Except this time it wasn't mop-up duty.
Quinn worked a scoreless 14th inning with a major assist (literally) from Velasquez. Playing left field for the first time since he was between 12 and 14 years old, Velasquez threw out Jose Abreu at the plate trying to score from second on a single. The throw was 94.7 mph.
In the 15th, Velasquez nearly made an even more impressive throw, firing another perfect strike from deep left field that was just barely late of nailing speedy Leury Garcia. The play was reviewed and Garcia got his hand just around the tag. On the next play, Velasquez made a diving catch to end the inning.
It was a surreal final hour at Citizens Bank Park but it did not result in a win. The Phillies' offense was anemic most of the night, with Rhys Hoskins, Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Scott Kingery combining to go 2 for 24 in the loss.
"It was a horses--- situation," Kapler said. "It sucked. But the boys fought, all the way through to the end. I really thought the team stepped up in a major way, with everything on the line. They played their asses off."
Phillies fans were left with many questions after the bizarre way the game ended.
Why didn't Velasquez just pitch?
The answer was that Velasquez had thrown a bullpen session earlier in the day. Pitching was not an option after his 90-pitch effort Wednesday and the bullpen session Saturday.
When did Kapler know he was removing Eflin from the game?
The answer was before Eflin even went to the plate in the 13th inning. Kapler pressed him to make sure he was feeling OK, and Eflin admitted to feeling soreness in his triceps. Remember, this is a guy who has been a starting pitcher for most of his life. This role, pitching multiple times per week, is new to him. The Phillies are not going to push Eflin, nor Suarez for that matter, because of how new they are to these roles.
"I didn't feel it was right to put him at risk," Kapler said of Eflin. "He had pitched a lot for us. He had given us a lot. At that point, given the amount of injuries that we've had recently, I thought it was best to protect our player even at the expense of using a position player to pitch."
Again, it highlights the Phillies' depth issues. They were playing with 24 players on this night because Hector Neris is serving a three-game suspension.
The Phillies almost got away with all of it, thanks to two perfect innings from Blake Parker and two perfect innings from Eflin. If the offense could have just come up with one big hit, so many of the late-game shenanigans could have been prevented.
"I’ve never really seen something like that before," said Jason Vargas, who pitched well, allowing two runs in 6⅓ innings in his Phillies debut. "We were pretty sure [Velasquez] threw out the second guy as well. To throw out somebody with a guy on the line and make two crazy throws and then make a crazy catch that the best outfielder would be proud to make in a big situation, the effort was more than there.
"A pretty crazy first day. I can’t say that I’ve seen a better effort given to try to win a ball game."
The effort was there, on the mound and in the field. Guys weren't trying to make outs at the plate, but for whatever reason, this Phillies offense just goes in the tank a few times every week. At one point in extra innings, the two teams went 24 consecutive batters without a hit.
The loss is what matters most because every game counts in the race for a wild-card spot. But Phillies fans have long memories and this game will probably be remembered most for Kapler’s decision-making and Velasquez's efforts in left field.
"Vince might be one of our best all-around players," Kapler said. "He's a freaky athlete. We knew that about him. If there was a silver lining tonight — nobody's going to want to hear it — but it was Vince Velasquez performing like a superstar athlete. And Roman Quinn basically doing anything you could possibly do on a baseball field. And, s---, let's point to those things. Because why not?"
There are reasons why not, but the Phillies report back to the ballpark in about 12 hours and can move past this incredibly strange Friday night with a win behind Aaron Nola Saturday.
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