The Phillies sleepwalked their way to an 8-1 loss Wednesday afternoon against the Cubs and now hope to avoid losing something much more important: Vince Velasquez.
Velasquez, who turned 24 on Tuesday, threw just two pitches before exiting with right biceps soreness. He felt something on his third-to-last pitch in the bullpen before the game began but tried to pitch through it. After he threw two fastballs to Dexter Fowler at 86 mph, eight below his 94 mph average, both Velasquez and catcher Cameron Rupp knew something was up. Rupp refused to allow him to throw another pitch. Velasquez left the game, unable to make the bounce-back start he sought after struggling his last three times out (see Instant Replay).
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"I'm glad he was honest about it," pitching coach Bob McClure said.
The severity of the injury is not yet known. Velasquez will be reevaluated Thursday. The Phillies are off, and he will likely have an MRI. A biceps strain is sometimes a precursor to an elbow injury. The opposing pitcher Wednesday, Cubs right-hander John Lackey, told reporters that he suffered one of his own before eventually needing Tommy John surgery.
Velasquez himself had Tommy John surgery back in 2010 and missed nearly two full years rehabbing. Without knowing how serious this biceps strain is, Velasquez downplayed it in the Phillies' clubhouse Wednesday.
"I'm not concerned at all," he said. "I've been in this situation before, so I know how to stay positive all the way through. I don't know what to expect, all I know is to have the right mindset."
The talk about staying positive and keeping a strong mindset almost made it seem like Velasquez is preparing himself for bad news. But he did say this strain feels different than what he felt six years ago.
"This is not something to be too worried about," Velasquez said. "This is just more in the bicep area, it's something that's probably minor."
"Historically, biceps are not in a danger area," manager Pete Mackanin said. "Not to diminish the possibility of it being bad, but it's not an elbow and it's not a shoulder. But we'll have to wait and see what the evaluation is."
If Velasquez misses time, there are several candidates to replace him in the Phillies' rotation. Brett Oberholtzer, who pitched four innings in relief of Velasquez Wednesday, is one. David Buchanan and Severino Gonzalez, both at Triple A and on the 40-man roster, are two more. Buchanan has struggled with Lehigh Valley, and Gonzalez has pitched exclusively in relief, but Gonzalez did make a spot start in place of Zach Eflin Wednesday.
Eflin's being pulled Wednesday seemed to create the possibility that he could take Velasquez's spot in the rotation if need be, but that decision was apparently made by the IronPigs to just give Eflin an extra day of rest. He's been excellent this season, going 5-1 with a 3.14 ERA in 10 starts, but he's also allowed 10 earned runs in his last 10 1/3 innings. Eflin is not on the Phillies' 40-man roster, but they do have one spot open.
Velasquez's spot in the rotation comes up next in Toronto. The Blue Jays have a patient and powerful lineup and play in a hitter-friendly ballpark, so it won't be an easy assignment for whoever draws it.
But Oberholtzer, who has struggled all year as a reliever, would be eager for the opportunity.
Wednesday was the best the lefty has looked all season. The Phillies acquired him as part of the return when they traded Ken Giles to Houston, where Oberholtzer had been a solid starting pitcher. In 246 1/3 innings as a member of the Astros' rotation, Oberholtzer had a 3.84 ERA, mostly because of his command and ability to generate groundballs.
Pitching out of the bullpen has been a new and challenging experience for him, and it's often seemed like he just doesn't have the stuff to be effective as a reliever. He's not a lefty specialist who stifles same-handed hitters, and he throws in the high-80s so it's not like he's giving opponents fits with a faster look than they saw from the game's starting pitcher.
"Well I never pitched out of the 'pen for an extended amount of time," Oberholtzer said Wednesday when asked how he's adjusted this season. "For the most part, I've been a starter, I've always worked and prepared myself for that role. So I guess this year, it's been a learning experience.
"It's the same [plan of attack], it's just a different course of the game — being able to start the game and have control over it as opposed to coming in the game down three or four runs and their bats are live. But it hasn't changed too much, just more so being patient and waiting for that opportunity to get out and throw extended innings.
"I felt like I had a little more in me today. Being a starter [in the past], I'm able to go deeper in the game even though I haven't pitched more than one or two innings in a live game. Today was just an example of being prepared. I went four [innings] so I guess that's a good starting point. But whatever happens happens."
Mackanin pulled Oberholtzer after four innings, and from there the Phillies' bullpen unraveled. Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist each homered off Andrew Bailey, and Colton Murray survived a seventh-inning jam before allowing four runs in the eighth.
It looked early like the Phillies might solve Lackey, but they ran themselves out of a scoring opportunity in the first inning when Odubel Herrera was thrown out at the plate without a slide attempting to score on a sacrifice fly to center.
They had just one hit off of Lackey the rest of the way. Lackey pitched seven shutout innings with eight strikeouts to improve to 7-2 with a 2.63 ERA. His win was the Cubs' fifth in six games against the Phillies. Cubs starting pitchers had a 1.06 ERA in those games with more than a strikeout per inning.
"I'm glad we don't have to see them again," Mackanin said.
No they don't. But the Phillies' next seven games — three with the Nationals, four with the Blue Jays — won't provide much respite.