Phillies-Tigers 5 Things: Velasquez Faces Power-packed Lineup

Phillies (25-19) at Tigers (21-22)
7:10 p.m. on CSN

The homestand is over and now the next big test awaits the Phillies.

After going 5-4 at Citizens Bank Park in three winnable series against the Reds, Marlins and Braves, the Phils embark on a nine-game stretch against a power-packed Tigers lineup, the major-league best Cubs and the revenge-minded Nationals.

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How the Phillies play in these next nine games will tell us much more about their legitimacy than the previous three series.

Let's take a look at tonight's series opener in Detroit:

1. DH time
An interleague series in an American League park means the ability to use a designated hitter. It comes at a good time, as Tommy Joseph needs consistent at-bats to get comfortable in the majors. Having a DH means Joseph could play first and Ryan Howard could stay in the lineup.

Monday's opponent, Mike Pelfrey, has always struggled to pitch to Howard, so he'll have a place in the lineup for Game 1. Howard is 16 for 45 (.356) with two doubles, three homers, seven RBIs, eight walks and four strikeouts in his career against Pelfrey, who pitched for the Mets from 2006 to 2012. 

The four strikeouts in 54 plate appearances illustrates how well Howard sees Pelfrey — his next-lowest strikeout rate against an individual pitcher is four K's in 36 plate appearances against Jair Jurrjens.

The Phils will face three right-handers in Detroit in Pelfrey, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez. So this week should allow Joseph to see some veteran, same-handed pitching. The Phils' other option would be starting Andres Blanco, who also deserves more playing time. Then again, there is always a spot available for Blanco at second base or shortstop, the Phillies just more often than not choose not to use it.

2. Scouting the Tigers
Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Victor Martinez, Justin Upton, Ian Kinsler, Nick Castellanos, Cameron Maybin. That's a whole lot of offense.

And yet the Tigers enter this series a game under .500, due in large part to the epic struggles of Upton, Cabrera's slow start and a bullpen that just seems destined to stink every year.

Detroit probably cost itself a shot at a World Series in Cabrera's prime by not making the necessary moves to shore up its bullpen. And now, years later, they've finally made it a priority, going out this offseason to acquire closer Francisco Rodriguez and setup men Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson. The problem is that Wilson has a 4.76 ERA, Lowe has a 7.04 ERA and K-Rod is much more hittable than used to be. The Tigers' bullpen has allowed its opponenta a .761 OPS, third-highest in the AL.

Upton was their big free-agent signing this winter at six years, $132.75 million. He has been a major disappointment so far, leading the majors with 66 strikeouts and hitting just .223 with two home runs. He's on pace for 249 K's. 

Cabrera has hit .384 over the last month with a ton of power, but he was hit by a pitch on the left knee Sunday and is day to day. It would be a huge break for the Phillies if they're able to avoid him for a game or two this week (see story).

The Martinezes are both enjoying solid seasons, with Victor hitting .329 with a .908 OPS, and J.D. hitting .261/.333/.485 with nine homers and eight doubles.

Castellanos is third in the AL with a .340 batting average, and Maybin is 12 for 20 with a homer, five RBIs, five runs and four steals since returning from a shoulder injury last week.

This won't be an easy assignment for Vince Velasquez tonight.

3. Up to the task?
Velasquez enters his ninth start 5-1 with a 2.42 ERA. He wasn't great his last time out, but the numbers were: five shutout innings, 10 strikeouts. Velasquez has struck out 11.0 batters per nine innings this season while walking 2.8. His WHIP is 0.99, and he's allowed just three home runs in 48⅓ innings. His opponents have hit .191. By all accounts, the 24-year-old is having an excellent first full season as a starting pitcher.

As outlined above, though, this is a different challenge for Velasquez. The Tigers are filled with veteran hitters, and Velasquez won't have the respite of facing an opposing pitcher. (Pitchers are 3 for 14 with no walks and four strikeouts against Velasquez this season.)

The Phils are certainly looking for more length from Velasquez tonight. He was forced out after just five innings his last time out because he struggled with control, and despite the solid line, needed 103 pitches to record 15 outs. The main cause of that was the insanely high number of foul balls (31) the Marlins had against him.

Velasquez always throws a lot of fastballs — 63 percent for the season — but look for him to utilize it even more tonight. The Tigers are hitting just .220 this season against right-handed fastballs of 95 mph or more. Velasquez's heater averages 95.1 mph. 

On the season, Velasquez has thrown mostly four-seam fastballs and curveballs. He's thrown his changeup 7.5 percent of the time, and he may want to avoid the pitch altogether tonight because the Tigers have the second-best batting average in the majors against right-handed changeups at .319, trailing only the Twins.

Velasquez did not face the Tigers last season with Houston.

4. The book on Big Pelf
Pelfrey is the definition of a No. 5 starter, a veteran righty with mediocre stuff and a 4.55 career ERA.

He's struggled in his first season with Detroit, going 0-4 with a 5.49 ERA in eight starts. His 1.80 WHIP and .333 opponents' batting average are both second-highest in the majors to Wily Peralta.

Pelfrey, 6-foot-7, is mostly a three-pitch pitcher with a 93 mph sinker he throws 65 percent of the time, a low-80s splitter (21 percent) and a mid-80s slider (11 percent). His opponents are hitting .358 against the sinker with 13 extra-base hits in 123 at-bats. 

He usually throws that sinker on the first pitch, so look for some aggressiveness tonight from the Phils. Against lefties, Pelfrey is more apt to start an at-bat with a curveball. He's thrown only 20 curveballs all season but 13 of them have been on the first pitch against lefties.

5. This and that
• Tyler Goeddel, who had his second triple Sunday, is hitting .340 over his last 14 games. He went 13 for 31 (.419) on the homestand with four extra-base hits and a walk-off outfield assist. He's really come into his own since manager Pete Mackanin decided to play him every day.

• Odubel Herrera broke out of a mini-slump Sunday with two hits and a walk. In 187 plate appearances, he's hitting .325 with a .439 OBP. Herrera has reached base three or more times in 12 games this season. The only major-leaguers with more are Dexter Fowler (15), Stephen Piscotty (14), Bryce Harper and Paul Goldschmidt (13).

• Since April 30, Howard is 4 for 48 (.083) with five walks and 20 strikeouts. All four hits have gone for extra bases — a double and three homers. 

• The dimensions of Comerica Park are unique. The outfield is massive, with the wall in dead-center 420 feet away. A lot of triples are hit deep to right-center. It will be interesting to see how Herrera fares defensively in his first series in Detroit.

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