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April 07, 2017

Bad bounces, early exits and Bonds-like power: Breaking down Phillies defeat

The first of the 81 games scheduled at Citizens Bank Park this season was nothing if not entertaining.

Unfortunately for anyone that wasn’t residing in the visiting dugout, the entertainment value was lacking over the first five innings, when Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Jayson Werth combined for seven runs worth of home runs.

But the Phillies came around to nearly erase that early seven-run deficit, which was a pretty remarkable feat when you consider the man standing in the way of them scoring runs was none other than the reigning National League Cy Young winner, Washington Nationals right-hander Max Scherzer.

Freddy Galvis’s run-scoring double, coming immediately after Scherzer exited the game, started the comeback. Galvis’s two-run home run in the ninth capped it, although it came up a run short in the Phillies 7-6 defeat.

“I wanted to win that game but I’m really happy with the way the guys battled back,” manager Pete Mackanin said, “To be down 7-0 with Scherzer pitching for the guys to be able to come back the way they did, including (against) their closer, it was huge. I think it’s a good, good omen for things to come.”

You can read about the game details from the story filed at the buzzer.

Upon returning from the postgame clubhouse, here’s a breakdown of three things that led to a one-run defeat in the 2017 home opener.

Brock’s Unlucky Bounce

At the time, it sure didn’t feel like it could be the difference-making play. The Phillies were trailing 7-1 in the seventh inning when Scherzer uncorked a wild pitch, rookie Brock Stassi broke from second to third, and catcher Matt Wieters became the recipient of a fortuitous bounce.

But when the Phillies would score five more runs, including three in that seventh inning, it stung looking back from everyone to the manager and the rookie caught dead on his feet upon arrival to third base. The wild pitch bounced off the wall and right back to Wieters, who fired to third to nail Stassi for the first out of an inning that began with back-to-back walks off Scherzer.

“If we didn’t get that bad break,” Mackanin said, “it would have been a different ballgame.”

The guy who has played more innings at Citizens Bank Park than anyone else in the clubhouse made a point to find Stassi after the inning to let him know he didn’t screw up. He just got unlucky.

“[Freddy] Galvis after that inning told me he’d been playing here for however many years and he said it was the first time he’d seen that happen,” Stassi said of the bounce. “I was like, ‘Figures it happens to me in my first game here.’ .. We’re taught to run the bases aggressively and I saw it in the dirt, (the) looked up about halfway and I was like, ‘Oh great.’ He threw a strike to third.”

Like Galvis, Mackanin said this wasn’t a case of a rookie making a rookie mistake in his first game in his home ballpark.

“I can’t blame Stassi for going,” Mackanin said. “A ball goes back to the wall, I guess you have to at least be aware of it, it’s just one of those things. It couldn’t have been knocked right back to Wieters any better. It’s just one of those things. We had something going that inning and that kind of took the wind out of our sails.”

Perhaps the one run wouldn’t had mattered as much if … Velasquez gave himself a better opportunity to compete.

Velasquez Comes Up Short

We spent a decent chunk of the game story on this topic, a topic that Vince Velasquez has been able to escape since he jumped into a major league rotation for the first time, temporarily with the Houston Astros two years ago and then as a full-fledged member of the Phillies starting five during the duration of the 2016 season.

For all of the god-gifted talent in his right arm, Velasquez spends an awful lot of time wasting pitches early in games, leading to high pitch counts, leading to early exits from games. Velasquez didn’t just yield two, two-run home runs in four innings of work on Friday, putting the Phillies in a 4-0 hole, he also used up 94 pitches in those four innings.

In his 32 major league starts, Velasquez has gone five or fewer innings 14 times (44 percent of his starts). He’s failed to go at least five in nine of those 32 starts, or nearly a third of the time.

To say this puts a strain on his team, especially when it’s coupled with crooked numbers on the other half of the scoreboard, would be a bit of an understatement.

“Once again we had to go to our bullpen early… it puts a strain on us,” said Mackanin, who had to do the same thing a day earlier when Clay Buchholz was gone after five innings.

The bullpen arms were better on Friday than they were Thursday, save the slider off the plate that Jayson Werth reached out and poked from Joely Rodriguez and sent it over the left field wall for a decisive three-run home run. But the result was the same: a loss because a starting pitcher couldn’t do what starting pitchers are paid to do, deliver quality starts, and not the actual definition of a quality start but the one that means taking on at least two-thirds of the pitching workload for the day while also keeping his team in position to win the game.

“It’s just a lack of performance on my end,” Velasquez said. “It’s just frustrating, frustrating to have a showing like we did at the end and not come out on top because of my performance. … I should do a better job, at least go deeper in the game. I can’t control what Harper did and what Murph did, but if I go deeper in the game, anything can happen. I give my guys credit in the end for battling the way we did, because that’s who we are, that’s what we’re about. It’s a lack of performance on my end, I have to work on that.”

For comparison sake, Velasquez threw just four more pitches in four innings than Scherzer (98 pitches) needed to pitch into the seventh inning. If Velasquez was still pitching in the seventh inning, and firing off the stuff that allowed him to collect 10 strikeouts on Friday, perhaps there’s a different result.

“We talk about it, he knows that he has to do [be more economical], but it doesn’t come overnight,” Mackanin said. “I think over the course of the season, it’s going to come. I think with the type of fastball that he has with the movement and velocity that he has, I think he can probably lean on that pitch more than he has. I think sometimes he thinks he’s got to do too much. He can just overpower hitters. There’s a time and place to do that, and there’s a time and a place to finesse, he’s going to get it.”

It’s probably easier to “get it” when you’re not matched up against …

Phillie Killers: Max, Jayson, and Bryce

It’s almost hard to believe the Nationals nearly coughed up a game they once led 7-0 with Max Scherzer on the mound. Scherzer has been almost automatic against the Phillies since signing with the Nationals prior to the 2015 season, as we broke down prior to Friday’s game.

After continuing his undefeated run against the Phils during that time, here are Scherzer’s updated numbers in that 10-start span: 7-0, 1.87 ERA, 0.8433 WHIP, 83 strikeouts, and 14 walks in 72 1/3 innings. He should probably send the Phillies a fruit basket if he wins another Cy Young award this year.

Fun fact: with Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz gone (and Joe Blanton not getting into Friday’s game, despite warming up in the ‘pen for Washington late in Friday’s game), Jayson Werth became the first member of the 2008 Phillies championship team to take the field at Citizens Bank Park in 2017. Phillies fans would probably wish he would just go away forever (or at least until a future Phillies Alumni Weekend).

Werth’s three-run home run in the fifth inning on Friday was his 20th career home run against the Phillies, the most he’s hit against any team in baseball. Which is a strange stat considering he played four of his 15 seasons with the Phillies. (He has 19 home runs against the Braves).

It’s also always sunny in Philadelphia for Bryce Harper when he steps to the plate at Citizens Bank Park. Harper’s first-inning home run was his 12th career home run in 36 games at CBP, the most he has in any ballpark other than Nationals Park (64 in 337 G).

Since the start of the 2015 season (coinciding with Scherzer’s run of dominance against the Phillies), Harper has hit nine home runs in 15 games (57 at-bats) at Citizens Bank Park, averaging one in every 6.33 at-bats.

Perhaps this puts that number in even better perspective: in 2001, when he swatted a record 73 home runs, Barry Bonds was averaging a home run in every 6.52 at-bats. So, yes, in the last three years, Bryce Harper at CBP is basically Bonds at his best. Scary. 

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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