Vince Velasquez went out on a high note on Saturday night.
The Phillies' hard-throwing righty pitched seven strong innings in a sloppy 6-4 loss to the Braves in 10 innings (see story).
Following the game, manager Pete Mackanin said that the start would be Velasquez's last in 2016. The 24-year-old, acquired from the Astros as part of the Ken Giles trade, had a fine — at times spectacular — first season in red pinstripes.
"One of the few things good about tonight was Velasquez pitched extremely well," Mackanin said. "He started out the season strong and finished strong."
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We all knew this was coming. Part of the reason Houston may have been willing to deal Velasquez was his injury history. Tommy John surgery in 2010 cost him almost two years. He missed time earlier this season with a strained bicep as well.
The innings limit was a decision ultimately made by the front office, but everybody was on board.
"It came from the top," Mackanin said of the decision. "We were in agreement. We discussed it. We thought it was the best thing to do. We want him to win 100 games for the Phillies so we want to keep him healthy."
Velasquez knew it would be his final start, but wanted to avoid distractions beforehand by not making it public knowledge.
"I completely understood from the beginning," Velasquez said of the team's decision to shut him down. "It's a lot of workload on my arm from last year being sent up and down, being in long relief and not throwing for about 10 days. ... The workload has a toll on me but I completely understand. I'm definitely looking forward to next year and having a big impact."
Velasquez finishes the year with an 8-6 record, a 4.12 ERA and 152 strikeouts in 131 innings. His best performance was his dominant start in April against the Padres. Vinny from Philly threw a complete game shutout, striking out 16. He offered a glimpse of just how dominant he could be.
During the second half of the season, Velasquez struggled. Saturday was the first time he'd pitched seven innings since July 19 against the Marlins. He was economical, using his changeup well and getting ahead of hitters. It was an outing reminiscent of a pitcher Velasquez tries to emulate: Diamondbacks ace Zack Greinke.
"Greinke kind of reminds me of myself," Velasquez said. "Power changeup, power fastball. With the Dodgers he was just phenomenal with how he utilized his changeup that much and protected his fastball and I'm kind of the same way. I think that's pretty much the objective. Go back to last year's film and watch what he does and pretty much learn from what he does and apply it to myself for next year."
An interesting thing that Velasquez shared is the bond he's already formed with Greinke's former battery mate with the Dodgers, A.J. Ellis. Velasquez said Ellis, acquired last week in the Carlos Ruiz trade, has given him "assignments" in order to become more like the former Cy Young award winner.
"He has little tasks for me to do," Velasquez said of Ellis. "We'll flip back and see what I did throughout the whole year and work on the things that need to be worked on for next year."
Against the Braves, Velasquez struck out eight, but more importantly walked none. The only true blemishes were a pair of solo homers hit by Braves third baseman Adonis Garcia. He was in line for a win when he left the game after the seventh.
The Phillies turned the ball over to setup man Hector Neris, leading 4-3. Neris was able to induce a pop up in foul territory by the visitors' dugout to the first batter of the inning, Chase D'Arnaud. Maikel Franco and Cameron Rupp both went after the ball. The ball hit Franco's glove and hit the ground. D'Arnaud went on to walk and score on a Garcia groundout.
After closer Jeanmar Gomez bounced back from Friday's outing with a scoreless ninth, Edubray Ramos struggled in the 10th. The rookie reliever allowed the first two runners to reach base. Both would eventually score on a fielder's choice and a groundout.
Franco had a big night at the plate, going 4 for 5 with three doubles. His error in the eighth was a just a miscommunication. Franco said he "called the ball too late."
In a rebuild, success isn't defined by wins and losses. The progress of the young players taking the field is what truly matters. In this case, the Phillies appear to have a rotational building block in Velasquez.
"He had a good season when you look at it all things considered," Mackanin said. "He's young. It's his first go around. He's had different roles during the course of his career. He's been in the bullpen, a swing guy, a starter but now he's just strictly a starter for us and I think that's gonna help him set a pattern and a rhythm in the way he goes about preparing."