Vince Velasquez's 2019 priorities, thoughts on how Phillies' rotation is perceived

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Vince Velasquez's 2019 priorities, thoughts on how Phillies' rotation is perceived

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies have shown a lot of confidence in their starting rotation over the last six months, standing pat after missing out on Patrick Corbin and J.A. Happ and looking ready to roll into the regular season with the same five guys who accounted for 150 of their 162 starts in 2018.

Dallas Keuchel is still out there but is unlikely to be a Phillie unless his market totally dries up and he is willing to accept a short-term deal at a surprisingly low number. 

You'll recall that last season, the Phillies' starting rotation was their strength in the first third of the season. From opening day through the end of May, Phillies starting pitchers had a combined 3.31 ERA, fifth-best in the majors. They were in the top-8 in baseball in strikeout rate, walk rate, home run rate and WHIP.

Things fell apart late in the season. Performances were uneven from Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta and Jake Arrieta. 

All of the 2019 projections and predictions are meaningless. Folks can be optimistic about the Phillies' starting rotation or question whether they have enough pitching — it's all just chatter until we see where this group stands after six weeks or so. Even then, it will be tough to form a concrete opinion given the ebbs and flows of 2018. When will the sample size be large enough to believe Velasquez, Eflin or Pivetta have truly turned a corner?

Monday afternoon against the Rays, Velasquez had the kind of start he's had frequently as a Phillie — swings-and-misses, early wildness, a high pitch count, some untimely hard contact. He ended up throwing 43 pitches in two innings, striking out four and allowing four well-struck balls that led to five runs.

Velasquez knows that the perception, locally and nationally, is that the Phillies' offense should be potent and the defense improved, but the starting pitching is a question mark.

"I don't think we're focusing on what the word is out there," he said. "I have a job to do and that's to continue pitching and being a strong pitcher that I'm capable of being. I know what we have as far as [guys returning]. We were dominant for the first half. ...

"I don't really foresee any changes in the rotation as of now. I just know that we're full-on confident with what we have."

Velasquez has made 69 starts as a Phillie. Among them, 24 could be classified as very good starts. In 23 other starts, he failed to complete five innings. It would be redundant to say there hasn't been enough consistency. The organization knows it, the fans know it, he knows it. 

One thing you can never question is Velasquez's dedication to his craft and willingness to assess himself honestly. He never hides after a bad outing. He never makes excuses. He's accountable. That's not always the case with young pitchers, especially in a pressure-cooker environment like Philadelphia.

This season, he will face pressure unlike any he has experienced in his previous three seasons as a Phillie. That's just a byproduct of playing for a team with high expectations.

"We try to put it all together with Vinny," manager Gabe Kapler said. "We want him to establish the four-seam fastball, we want him to establish it up in the zone, we want him to get ahead. You saw as he eased into the game, the 95s, the 96s flash. We want to see that from jump."

When you miss a lot of bats and lose command of the strike zone, especially early in counts, you're going to throw a lot of pitches. Velasquez, as a Phillie, has averaged 17.0 pitches per inning. The average in both leagues over that span is 16.6. When you put it like that, it doesn't seem so bad, but Velasquez did rank in the bottom 10 of the NL in pitches per inning in all three seasons.

How does he find outs earlier in counts? How does he take his, at times, overpowering arsenal deeper into games? There's not one answer, but ...

"Him showing ultimate confidence in his stuff," Kapler said. "And that means on a 2-0 count, I'm throwing you a fastball even if the last one got hit for a double. Later, when I'm in an 0-2 count, I don't need to be perfect and work a 3-2 count to punch you out. I can throw you a couple fastballs and while you're defensive and in that 0-2 count, you might swing and miss a little bit earlier."

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Phillies’ next 3 opponents have even more to play for, which doesn’t bode well

Phillies’ next 3 opponents have even more to play for, which doesn’t bode well

The Phillies will begin their final road trip of the season Tuesday and they’ll be either four or five games out of the second wild-card spot with 14 to play, pending the result of Cubs-Reds Monday night.

The first stop of the 11-game trip is Atlanta, where the Braves will have as much to play for as the Phillies. They are four games behind the Dodgers in their long shot attempt to gain home-field advantage in the NL playoffs. If the Dodgers had a larger lead and no advantage was to be gained, Atlanta might have been resting key players by now.

After that three-game set comes a weekend series in Cleveland. The Indians are 1 1/2 games behind the Rays for the second AL wild-card spot. That series against the Phillies will be a must-win for Terry Francona’s club.

The last stop is D.C. for five games, including a doubleheader on day two. The Nationals are in good shape, leading the wild-card race by 1 1/2 games over the Cubs and 2 1/2 games on the teams chasing them. The Phillies will see all three of Washington’s aces in that series.

The Nationals clinched their eighth consecutive winning season over the weekend. That streak began the same year as the Phillies’ current string of non-winning seasons.

The road to a wild-card spot is damn near impossible. Even the path to a winning record will be challenging for the Phillies, who must go 6-8 or better to finish with at least 82 wins.

There will be change this offseason, the question is how much. The Phillies put together some nice pieces but not a winning formula in 2019. That may have even been true if half the injured relievers were still active, given how few games the Phillies had the pitching advantage in the first five innings this season.

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Bryce Harper fumes at umpire as Phillies lose more ground to put winning season in peril

Bryce Harper fumes at umpire as Phillies lose more ground to put winning season in peril

After a homestand that saw them lose four of six games, and with a killer, 11-game road trip looming, the question no longer seems to be will the Phillies make the playoffs, it’s will they even have a winning season?

They have done neither since 2011.

Making the playoffs became the longest of long shots after the Phils lost a pair of games over the weekend to the Boston Red Sox. The Sox completed a two-game sweep with a 6-3 win on Sunday afternoon. The Phillies scored just four runs in the series. Only two of their 12 hits were for extra bases and they struck out a staggering 25 times.


With 14 games remaining, the Phils are 4 ½ games back in the NL wild-card race and their overall record is 76-72. They need to go at least 6-8 to finish with a winning record and that won’t be easy with this remaining schedule:

Three games in Atlanta.

Three games at Cleveland.

Five games at Washington.

Three games at home against Miami.

Atlanta, Cleveland and Washington entered Sunday a combined 74 games over .500 and Miami gives the Phillies fits.

Finishing with a winning record will be a challenge.

But for now, manager Gabe Kapler remains focused on keeping the Phillies’ faint playoff hopes a-flicker.

“My only concern is the step right in front of us,” Kapler said after Sunday’s loss. “That's winning the game (Tuesday night) in Atlanta. I'm already past what happened in this Boston series. It's going to sting. It's going to suck. The plane ride's going to be difficult, and we'll start game-planning for Atlanta. One game at a time, one step at a time.

“We have no choice but to continue to fight. You know what? Sometimes you see the best come out in people when their backs are against the wall. Ours are against the wall. My expectation is that you'll see our best.”

The Phillies were not at their best on Sunday.

Starting pitcher Jason Vargas did not keep his club in the game and lasted just three innings for the second straight start. His ERA over his last four starts is a plump 7.63.

“It's one of those things where you don't want to say one game means more than the other but it's easier to say that earlier in the year than later in the year,” said Vargas, who surrendered a third-inning grand slam to Christian Vazquez. “When it comes down to it, you really feel like you're in a spot where you have to put Ws on the board and when it doesn't happen you feel like you let everybody down."

The Phillies were also not at their strongest on Sunday. At least they did not have their strongest personnel on the field, not after Bryce Harper got ejected for protesting a called third strike with home plate umpire Gabe Morales in the fourth inning.

Morales missed the call and Harper retreated to the video area behind the dugout. He watched the replay of the pitch, saw that it was outside the zone, returned to the dugout and shouted, “It’s not even bleeping close,” to Morales.

The umpire ejected Harper.

“Then I kind of let him have it,” Harper said. “It just sucks. You’re in the middle of a race and you’re in a 1-2 count and (Boston starter Rick) Porcello throws a front-hipper like he did in my first at-bat, which was a good pitch. I’m going to tip my cap when he throws me a good pitch, but I disagreed with that call and I kind of looked back at him and said, ‘That’s not a strike.’ He kind of looked at me like, ‘Yeah, right, stupid.’ It was that kind of look and I went back and thought, ‘Maybe he’s right.’ I went back and looked at it and it wasn’t close.”

Kapler was also ejected for defending Harper.

“I think everybody can look at the pitch and see why both Bryce was upset and I was upset on his behalf,” Kapler said. “It’s an enormous game, obviously, with a lot of implications and I thought, obviously, Bryce was right about the pitch, but just as importantly, I thought, in a game of this magnitude there could have been a little bit of a longer leash to allow him to stay in this game and allow it to play out on the field.”

A pool reporter attempted to speak with Morales shortly after the game. Morales was present but said he could not speak because crew chief Jerry Meals had already departed for the airport. Talk about your quick getaways.

Harper did not dispute that his getting ejected left his team in a bind.

“You can’t get thrown out in that situation, of course,” he said. “I don’t want to get thrown out in that situation. But, you know, it happened.

“I usually don’t complain unless it’s there. I’m pro pitcher, too. If a pitcher throws a good pitch, I’m all about it. Like I said, first at-bat Porcello threw that front-hipper and punched me out, so I tipped my cap to him right there. So the next at-bat, I’m kind of sitting on the same pitch because he kind of did the same thing and it wasn’t close. You get into a 2-2 count against him and you see another pitch. He might have punched me out on the next pitch, but also I might have hit a double in the gap and I’m on second base.

“On both sides, you have to be better, especially in these games right now. You have to be better back there. I know he’s not trying to call a strike or not call a ball, but he just has to be better for me.”

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