The Phillies' week-long nightmare came to end Friday night. Vince Velasquez's personal headache continued.
The Phils snapped a seven-game losing streak by beating the Brewers, 6-3 (see Instant Replay). They scored three runs in both the third and fourth innings, a rare offensive outburst for a team that still hasn't scored more than three in any of its 490 innings this season.
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Velasquez was given a six-run lead after the fourth but couldn't get the three outs he needed to become the pitcher of record. His 94th and final pitch loaded the bases with one out in the fifth inning and manager Pete Mackanin pulled him from the game. The exchange at the mound was not routine. Mackanin, who made it a point to say the two are "cool" now, did not like the way Velasquez handed him the ball and the two had words in the dugout.
Velasquez was frustrated. Frustrated with himself, frustrated to not have a chance to finish five innings, frustrated to not make the most of one of the largest run support figures the Phillies have provided a pitcher all year. He hasn't completed five innings in any of his last three starts. He's averaging 16.7 pitches per inning this season, a figure higher than the league average, 2.2 pitches more per frame than Aaron Nola and 1.2 more than Jerad Eickhoff.
Velasquez was electric early in the season, taking his new city by storm with a three-hit, 16-strikeout shutout of the Padres in his first home start. But that's the only time in his 11 starts that he's pitched more than six innings. He's not economizing his pitches, particularly with two strikes.
Velasquez talked in spring training about wanting to get outs earlier in counts and not rely so much on strikeouts. But it often seems like a strikeout is his main goal, especially once he gets two strikes on a hitter. The result lately has been some waste pitches, some nibbling, some foul balls, a rising pitch count and an early exit.
"It's frustrating. I can't give you a legit answer because I don't know what's going on right now," Velasquez said. "I've got to figure something out. It's just one of those stages where you're dealing with adversity. You've got to enjoy the failure, you've got to fight through it. Right now it's getting the best of me. My only job is to work on it tomorrow, go back to film, see what I've got to do. I've got to work on 0-2 counts and try to get ahead of hitters, which I was doing in the beginning [of the season]."
Velasquez's pace slowed considerably with men on base Friday night. At times in the second inning he took 35 to 40 seconds between pitches. Gathering yourself and concentrating is one thing, but it's rare to see a tempo that slow from a starting pitcher. Mackanin considers that part of Velasquez's learning process. This was, after all, only his 17th major-league start.
"He's learning," Mackanin said. "I wish he would set a quicker pace. It's not a concern at this point because he's trying to learn not only about how to pitch at this level and about the hitters, but about himself. And sometimes it's pretty nerve-wracking out there. The concentration is important. It happens sometimes. As we go along, he's going to develop a nice rhythm and understand the flow of the game a little better."
The Phillies' offense finally found its own flow Friday night. Cameron Rupp started the scoring with a solo home run to the opposite field. Maikel Franco, who's hitting .327 with runners in scoring position despite his prolonged slump, singled in the second run with two outs.
The biggest blow came in the fourth, when Andres Blanco, starting a third straight game for the first time all season, lined a three-run homer to right to break the game open.
Tommy Joseph also had another nice night, going 2 for 4 with two well-struck singles that had exit velocities of 109 and 106 mph. The MLB average is 89 mph.
"We had a lot of energy," Rupp said. "We knew at some point it was going to turn. We hadn't been able to sustain a rally this year, we know it's no secret. But we did. ... We had some good two-out hits and I think that was really the key."
It was a welcome sign for Mackanin, who has felt like a broken record talking about the Phillies' offensive woes day-in and day-out.
The pitcher the Phillies beat Friday, Jimmy Nelson, was the best the Brewers have to offer. He entered with a 2.88 ERA and exited at 3.43. These next two games against Milwaukee are winnable, with Jeremy Hellickson and Aaron Nola opposing rookie Junior Guerra and veteran Wily Peralta, who's been one of the worst pitchers in the majors this season.
The schedule hasn't done the Phils any favors lately and is not easy after the Brewers leave town, but a decent weekend could put them back over .500 before the Cubs land in Philly.
"It was a big relief," Mackanin said. "Any time we score six runs, it's a big deal around here. I'm hoping this is gonna get us going, loosen us up a little bit. ... Tonight was a good indication that we still have it, we're still capable."