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April 12, 2017

How sweep it isn't: Velasquez looks like himself as Phils drop another to Mets

A homestand that began with Vince Velasquez firing fastballs by Washington Nationals hitters – while accumulating a lot of other pitches on his right arm, too – ended with Vince Velasquez once again trying to rack up strikeouts while failing to keep runners off base and his pitch count in a reasonable place.

So, full circle.

Every Velasquez start is pretty much like popping an old vinyl onto your turntable, grabbing a soft drink and a seat while the record begins to spin, only to hear it stop on a scratch and repeat the same awful screech over and over and over again.

To wit: the 24-year-old Velasquez has failed to pitch at least six innings in six of his last eight starts dating back to last season. Since joining the Phillies, Velasquez has pitched five innings or fewer in 12 of his 26 starts.

He has pitched more than six innings just three times in those 26 starts.

If you feel like you’ve read this, I don’t know, five days ago, it’s probably because you did. This is the Vince Velasquez Experience, where the narrative never moves forward. And where the talent bottled up in his right arm can never overcome whatever’s going on between his ears.

Perhaps that’s not fair. Velasquez seems to get it. He knows he must throw more first-pitch strikes and record outs earlier in at-bats and, thus, give himself the ability to pitch deeper into games and keep his team in those games by doing so.

But a lot more often that not, that’s not happening.

Velasquez put himself in a hole early, surrendering a run-scoring double to the third batter of the game, Yoenis Cespedes, collected a half dozen strikeouts between the second and fourth innings in an effort to get into a groove, and then fell out of whack when he walked back-to-back batters in the fifth before surrendering a two-run double on his 89th pitch in an eventual 5-4 loss to the Mets.

"Once again, he has to economize those pitches," manager Pete Mackanin said. "That fifth inning led to his undoing. ... Sometimes he maybe just tries to do too much instead with that powerful fastball just go right after them."

Even though he's just two games into his 2017 season, Velasquez sounded an awful lot like an athlete in the midst of a crisis of confidence following his second loss in six days.

"Terrible," he said of his performance. "The first two starts is not the way to go. I’m not even giving my team a chance to win. This is horrible. ... For the most part (I) just have to best the negative stuff ... (or) the little things that are getting the better of me. ... Again, I’m not even doing my part. It’s just horrible."

If Velasquez gives off the impression that he probably needs to get out of his own head as things go awry in his starts, it's probably because that's a fairly accurate diagnosis.

"Mentally, coming into the game I was locked in," he said. "But high pitch count, everything like that, shows otherwise. Again, it’s just a matter of making minor adjustments. That’s what this game is all about. As starter, it’s not the right way to start. You know, there’s a turning point somewhere. It’s coming around. I'm not giving up too quick. But I know the consequences if I don’t do my part. I’m fully aware of that."

The final score would lead you to believe it was a helluva night at the old ballyard, with the home team scrapping and crawling and having a go with their National League East foes. The reality: the Phillies were down 5-0 (thanks to Velasquez) until Maikel Franco took one mighty swing in the sixth, sending a blistering line drive into the center field seats for a grand slam.

After scoring a total of seven runs in the previous two nights, the Phillies’ scoring total on Wednesday was limited to that swing. They managed just six hits against Zach Wheeler and the Mets’ pen en route to being on the losing end of a series sweep.

New York has won 15 of their last 17 series against the Phillies.

What’s next? Following a 2-4 homestand the Phils hit the road on Friday (following a much-needed day off Thursday) to begin a six-game trip. The bad news? They’ll be facing the same two teams they just got finished playing, the two favorites to battle it out for the NL East crown later this summer, two teams stacked with top-tier pitching and heavy hitting: the Mets and Washington Nationals.

After a weekend in D.C., Velasquez’s next turn will come on Tuesday at Citi Field, the next time the Phils meet the Mets.

Will that be the game Velasquez figures it out, limits the regular drama in nearly every early at-bat and gives the bullpen a break? Could it be the start of something new?

From a seat two sections up from above the on-deck circle at Citizens Bank Park, and probably from your couch at home, too, it’s beginning to get difficult to see that coming.

"Hopefully during the course of this season he's going to show improvement," Mackanin said. "I have a lot of confidence in him making progress during the course of the year. He knows what he has to do. ... I think he'll progress during the course of the season."

If the beaten-down populace that is the Philadelphia sports fanbase is aware of anything, it's that progress of young players is a process. 

 "It’s just a mental thing that I need to overcome," Velasquez said. "It’s pretty much (having to) make this game simple. I just apply a lot of pressure on myself and I just end up giving stuff up, leaving things out over the plate and it leads to a high pitch count and I don’t go deep into games. 

"Again, I had the mindset of going seven innings today. But again, I’m trying to control the things I can control. It’s going to take some time. It’s a work in progress. I’m fully aware of what I’ve got to do and I’m going to attack it."

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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