Phillies-Braves 5 Things: Aiming for .500 Trip Behind Velasquez

Phillies (19-15) at Braves (8-24)
7:10 p.m. on CSN

For whatever reason, the Phillies couldn't solve Williams Perez's low-90s sinker, breaking ball combination last night in a weak 5-1 loss. The Phils are surely going to have meager offensive nights in losses this season, but mustering just two hits in eight innings off of a pitcher who's struggled both in the majors and at Triple A this season and doesn't have overpowering or deceptive stuff was a bit alarming.

In any event, it's just one loss, and the Phillies tonight go for their 20th win of the season and a series win over Atlanta to end this 10-game road trip.

1. The long road back
The Phillies have been on the road for 16 of their last 19 games. They had a six-game trip to Washington D.C. and Milwaukee, came home for a weekend series against the Indians, and then hit the road again to go to St. Louis, Miami and Atlanta.

It's been an OK trip for the Phillies, maybe better than OK depending on your perspective. The Phils are 4-5 and can make it a .500 trip with a win tonight. Each of the four wins were by one run, which helps explain why the Phils have been outscored 40-26 in the nine games.

Even after winning last night, the Braves are just 2-16 at home. The Phillies certainly don't want to be the first team to lose a series this season at Turner Field, nor do they want to provide Atlanta with its second winning streak of the year.

2. Velasquez should dominate
Vince Velasquez (4-1, 2.17) makes his seventh start of the season tonight. He's coming off an uneven performance in Miami in which he allowed four runs in the first two innings but then settled in to pitch four scoreless frames in a row.

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He'll provide a different look tonight than the Braves saw Wednesday with Jerad Eickhoff. Atlanta teed off against Eickhoff's low-90s fastball, but Velasquez's heater comes with more velocity and late life.

The Braves have scored the fewest runs in baseball and have never seen Velasquez. And we've already seen three examples this year at how off-balance Velasquez can keep a team that has never seen him before - he struck out nine Mets over six shutout innings in his first start, pitched a three-hit shutout with 16 K's against the Padres and kept the Indians off the board for six innings when the Phils were last at Citizens Bank Park.

The only two Braves who have seen Velasquez are Gordon Beckham (0 for 2) and Ender Inciarte (0 for 1).

Velasquez obviously has to be careful tonight with Freddie Freeman, the only power threat in the Braves' lineup. Freeman is 5 for 8 with two homers in the series.

3. Scouting Blair
The Braves will go with rookie right-hander Aaron Blair (0-2, 3.31) tonight. Blair, 23, has allowed three runs or fewer in each of his three starts but hasn't gone deeper than six innings. He's also walked multiple batters each time out and has nine walks and just five strikeouts in 16⅓ innings.

The 6-4, 250-pound Blair was drafted in the first round in 2013 by the Diamondbacks. He was traded to the Braves this past offseason with top prospect Dansby Swanson and Inciarte for Shelby Miller.

In the minors, Blair succeeded at each level, going 26-13 with a 3.13 ERA in 382 innings. He's a four-pitch pitcher with a four-seam fastball and sinker that average 92 mph, a changeup and a curveball.

Lefties have hit him well so far, going 8 for 27 (.296) with five walks.

4. All or nothing for Howard
That pretty much describes Ryan Howard's 2016 season so far. He's hitting just .182 with a .243 on-base percentage, but eight of his 18 hits have been home runs. The only first basemen in the majors with more homers than Howard are Chris Carter (10), Anthony Rizzo (10) and Chris Davis (9).

Perhaps more importantly, the only DH in the AL with more homers than Howard is David Ortiz with nine. Bears mentioning because if Howard continues to show this kind of power, albeit in the midst of immense struggles, some AL team should come calling.

Howard is just 3 for 22 on this road trip but all three hits were home runs.

5. Same numbers, different Franco
How's this for symmetry: Maikel Franco had seven homers, 18 RBIs and seven walks through his first 32 games last season, and has seven homers, 18 RBIs and seven walks through his first 32 games this season.

He's obviously not hitting as well this year, though, as pitchers have adjusted and thrown him more soft stuff away early in counts. Franco's batting average and on-base percentage are down about 20 points. He was hitting .268/.313/.512 at this point last year. He enters Thursday batting .248/.291/.456.

Franco has been held hitless in seven of his last 12 games.

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