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March 07, 2016

Big-armed Velasquez refining repertoire this spring with Phillies

BRADENTON, Fla. – Vinny from Philly, as his friends have called him for the last two months, only knows one speed, and it’s fast.

How fast? On the second day of March, more than a month before he’d have to make an appearance in a game that actually matters, Vince Velasquez hit 96 MPH on a radar gun at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin.

Five days later, he was blowing fastballs by Gregory Polanco and Sean Rodriguez in Bradenton against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Phillies don’t depart Florida until three weeks from Wednesday, on March 30, but you’re not going to have much luck telling Velasquez to rein himself in and take it easy. Even as he stands and talks to reporters in the clubhouse, away from the mound, Velasquez brings to mind Shane Victorino: he's wired, with a seemingly nonstop source of energy at his disposal at all times.

It was something former Houston pitcher and seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens admired in the young Southern California kid with the big arm when the then-Astros prospect was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery a half decade ago.

“My aggressiveness,” Velasquez said. “He liked the way I attacked hitters. My body language. I don’t really show much. He liked the way I’d bounce back.”

Velasquez apparently made it a habit to rub shoulders with former Cy Young Award winners or Hall of Fame pitchers. Clemens. Nolan Ryan, too.

“When I was at Double-A, from what he saw he liked,” Velasquez said of Ryan, who has worked in both the Astros and Texas Rangers front office in the last decade. “And he was always competitive, I’ve heard the stories. He’d never give in to anybody, no matter if you’re a rookie or whoever you are, he’s going to go after you. And if he hits you, he hits you. That’s baseball. I've always had that mentality.”

Velasquez isn’t out to hurt anyone – he reassured a reporter that hitting anyone is never his intention – but he’s also not anyone that’s going to be intimidated by a Bryce Harper or give a hit-me fastball to Giancarlo Stanton whenever he gets his opportunity to be a full-time member of a major league rotation.

“I like his arm, I like the stuff coming out of it,” Mackanin continued. “We’ll see what he does the next time and just keep rolling along with it. And if he continues to pitch down and getting them out, it bodes well for him.”

Velasquez showed off some of that aggressiveness on Monday afternoon in Bradenton, when he allowed three hits, struck out three, and walked one in three shutout inning in the Phillies 1-0 win over the Pirates.

“He pitched very well,” manager Pete Mackanin said of Velasquez, considered the front-runner for the fifth starter’s job because of his electric arm, one the Phillies identified as a must-have in the December trade that sent Ken Giles to Houston.

“I like his arm, I like the stuff coming out of it,” Mackanin continued. “We’ll see what he does the next time and just keep rolling along with it. And if he continues to pitch down and getting them out, it bodes well for him.”

“It was actually a little bit more comfortable, everything was working as much as I wanted to and I was working down in the bottom of the zone, not elevating a lot of my pitches,” Velasquez said of his second game of the spring. “I made a little minor adjustment in the bullpen, my bullpen that I had a few days ago and just a slight adjustment, that's all it was and I locked in.”

The adjustment?

“Just staying back,” he said, “not trying to be quick with my pitches and trying to be more fluid and just let it happen.”

So he can rein himself in from time to time. The hard-throwing right-hander understands his craft, and how there’s a difference between a hard-thrower and a refined pitcher.

It was at about the tender age of 17, before he was selected by the Astros in the second round of the 2010 draft, when Velasquez met his first multiple Cy Young Award winner, and that former two-time Cy Young Award winner gave him a gift.

“I got (my changeup) from Bret Saberhagen,” Velasquez said. “He was one of the guys who taught me.”

Velasquez met the former Kansas City Royals ace at a showcase event at Pepperdine University as a teenager. He left with a changeup he’s still fiddling with, one he had to discard when he broke into the big leagues last June.

“I’ve never had any doubts with throwing a pitch,” he said. “But once I got called up to the major leagues, the ball was different. And so there a little minor adjustment. And that little minor adjustment got the best of me and I couldn’t figure it out. So I lost a lot of feel to it.”

In order to make sure he had something besides a fastball (both of the four- and two-seam varieties) and his curveball (his primary secondary pitch), Velasquez decided to break out a slider, since he was without a changeup. Yes, he decided to introduce a new pitch into his arsenal in his first few games in the big leagues.

“It was a little risky,” Velasquez said. “I never really applied it in any bullpen (sessions) or (games). When I started to develop it, when I lost my changeup, that’s when I really considered it might be a pitch I might need to use if the changeup isn’t working that specific day. Or for a specific hitter. I have so much confidence with it, I can throw it to right-handed hitters in any type of situation, in any count. It was kind of hard to bring that back. But now I’ve been working on it all offseason, developing it.”

Since returning to active duty after the winter, and finding himself in a new uniform, Velasquez has familiarized himself with the lower-seamed Major League-issued baseball – “I always have a ball in my hand” – and has his changeup at his disposal again, too. He said he threw about four of them in three innings in Bradenton, one bouncing by catcher Cameron Rupp for a wild pitch.

Velasquez will continue to work at the changeup, since he knows it can be “devastating” for a power pitcher like himself. But the calendar still read March 7, so he has plenty of more time to refine his growing repertoire if and when he takes a turn in the Phillies rotation during the first week of the regular season.

“I hope so – that’d be nice,” Velasquez said of winning the vacant fifth starter job. “That’s the ultimate goal. But I can’t say anything now because I really don’t know.”

Asked what he was looking for in the perfect final rotation spot candidate, Mackanin said it was fairly basic.

“Consistency, pitchability … what you always look for,” Mackanin said. “Velasquez is a power pitcher obviously and I need to see a little more finesse from him. In a three-inning stint it's hard to do. Today everything was hard, hard, hard. I want to see a little finesse from him.”

The pitcher that followed him to the mound on Monday may have a leg up if the Phils are looking for someone with more experience at the job. Left-hander Brett Oberholtzer, who also came over in the Giles trade, also threw three scoreless innings.

Oberholtzer, a 26-year-old, New Castle, Del., native who made 42 starts for the Astros in the last three seasons, was credited with the win. He allowed four hits and struck out one batter and didn’t walk any of the 11 batters he faced.

“Competition brings out the best in all of us,” Oberholtzer said. “So, the more competition there is, obviously it’s going to bring out the best in you. I found myself doing that today, past outing, past springs. And that’s what got me into this situation I’m in now. I’m looking forward to the opportunity every time I get the baseball.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21