Vince Velasquez, still wearing jeans and a T-shirt, ran in and out of the clubhouse, kicking a soccer ball by himself.
It was just a little pregame footy to get the juices flowing.
His precious right arm, however, never quite warmed.
Suddenly, the Phillies were seeing haunting flashbacks to June 8, when the 24-year-old exited after two underwhelming pitches, the result of a right biceps strain that forced the normally hard-throwing Velasquez to the 15-day disabled list.
“You’re not kidding,” Pete Mackanin said. “We thought, ‘Oh no, not again.’”
Fortunately for the Phillies, that thought never became reality during Sunday afternoon’s 7-2 win over the Royals at Citizens Bank Park (see Instant Replay).
Velasquez, whose fastball clocks at a 95-mph average, had his coaching staff concerned this time following five pitches — these in the upper-80s and none harder than 90 mph. The Phillies quickly called time as Mackanin, a team trainer and the entire infield surrounded Velasquez for a meeting on the mound.
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The talented flamethrower reassured everyone he was fine — just a tad slow coming out of the gates. He then showed everyone he can also pitch, not just throw.
Sure, his velocity picked up, topping out at 96 mph and consistently hitting 91-93, but afterwards, Velasquez hung his hat on location and smarts. He stranded two runners in the first and went on to look just fine, throwing six innings of two-run ball to win his second game in as many starts since returning from the DL.
“It just took me a little bit longer to get warmed up, that’s all,” Velasquez said.
“That’s all it was, my arm was just dragging a little bit. I mean, it’s coming to the [end of the] first half of the season and I also had the injury that I had. And then you’re next question is going to be, ‘You hit 97 in Arizona, so what happened [today]?’ Well, things happen. Everyone has dead arm at some point. But that’s the game of baseball.”
So Velasquez adjusted, proving he doesn’t simply unleash heater after heater. He mixed and matched his fastball, changeup and slider to punch out seven and beat the reigning world champions.
“You’ve got to pitch. You’re not going have your stuff all the time, so you’ve got to pitch,” Velasquez said. “You’ve got to utilize your pitches, utilize all of your stuff. And today worked pretty well.
“I’ve been in situations like this before. But this was pretty much one of my biggest games, especially against a championship team like that. Again, location is the key. It’s beneficial, it’s going to help you out in the long run. It was pretty big today. I pretty much enjoyed it. And glad I came out with a victory, not just on my behalf, but on all of us.”
In a rebuilding season, the Phillies will err on the side of caution more often than not. Just look at Aaron Nola’s case (see story).
But Mackanin trusted Velasquez in this spot.
“I looked at them dead in eye and said I was fine,” Velasquez.
That convinced Mackanin.
“Well, you have to trust them,” he said. “We were going to see what happened over the course of that [first] inning to make sure, but I don’t think he would lie to us. He was very open about it the last time. He said he felt fine, not one bit of pain anywhere. He wanted to stay out there.
“He was fine in the bullpen. We just saw the velocity numbers and they weren’t good. That’s why we went out, to make sure. All he had to do was say one word and we were going to take him out. Obviously he was fine. After the game he said he felt great.”
Cameron Rupp, who handed Velasquez a three-run lead in the first inning with a bomb to right field, was just as unsettled as the bench. After all, he was catching Velasquez and wanted to ask him himself before Mackanin ever did.
“It was kind of weird, I didn’t know. After the first hitter, I went out there and just questioned how he felt,” Rupp said. “He said that he was OK. Then I said, ‘What’s the deal? You have nothing behind it.’ And he said, ‘It’s just not coming out.’ I asked if he was OK and going to be able to pitch. He said, ‘Yeah.’”
If anything, it motivated Velasquez.
“Then he fired it up and pitched really well,” Rupp said. “He pitched — he didn’t throw. He pitched.”
Quite possibly, it was all a blessing in disguise.
“I think he probably learned a lot about himself by going through that and having to pitch that way,” Mackanin said.
Some of the great power pitchers master the art of pace. On Sunday, Velasquez showed he gets it.
Even if it took the hard way.
“Sometimes I have to be conservative, use my secondary pitches, and then if I got something in the tank, then I’ll throw [the fastball],” Velasquez said. “You have to utilize your secondary pitches to be effective. Today showed it and I came out victorious.”