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April 26, 2017

Velasquez deals and Franco delivers in Phillies' fifth straight win

Putting too much stock in what happens in the first three weeks of a baseball season can be dangerous.

The first three weeks of the season, really, are no different than any other three-week stretch in the span of the six-month, 162-game grind. Players and teams go through streaks hot and cold throughout the season.

Neither Maikel Franco or Vince Velasquez were off to particularly strong starts after the first 18 games of the Phillies 2017 schedule. Franco came into Wednesday night hitting .171 with five extra-base hits in 78 plate appearances and Velasquez carried a 7.20 ERA and watched the Phillies lose each of the first three games he had started.

Bench him! Put him in the bullpen!

Even if this was a vocal minority, they sure let their voices be heard on talk radio and social media in the last three weeks. But, again, it’s a three-week span in a 26-week season.

Remain calm. Or, feel free to freak out just the same when a player struggles for three weeks in July, too.

Franco and Velasquez have plenty of time to get right. Perhaps Wednesday night was the start.

Franco erased an early two-run deficit with a third-inning grand slam while Velasquez pitched into the seventh inning for just the fourth time in his 28 starts in a Phillies uniform to guide the team to a 7-4 victory over the Miami Marlins.

"It’s a long season and it doesn’t happen overnight," manager Pete Mackanin said. "Maikey, that first base hit he got to right field, to right-center field was nice to see. When he starts doing things like that, and the double to right field the other night, and on top of it, turning out that fastball to hit that home run to left-center, center field, it was real good to see."

"It's a beautiful thing, huh?" Franco laughed when told the slam was his second in the last two weeks.

 Freddy Galvis and Michael Saunders also homered for the Phillies. Saunders' home run was his first in a Phillies uniform, and his first, period, since Sept. 20 of last season.

The win was the Phils’ fifth straight, the best active win streak in baseball. It pushed the Phillies (10-9) above the .500 mark on the young season and gave them their longest win streak since reeling off six in a row nearly a year ago (April 26-May 1, 2016).

"We feel really good," Franco said. "Everyone is really confident and playing the game the right way. That's what the game is about."

A half inning after Martin Prado launched an 0-1 changeup out for a solo home run to up the Marlins lead to 2-0, Franco stepped to the plate with one out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the third. Miami left-hander Wei-Yen Chen quickly got ahead in the count, but Franco fought back from 0-2 and drilled the sixth pitch of the at-bat, a belt-high 96-MPH fastball over the heart of the plate, and launched it deep into the seats beyond the fence in left-center to make it a 4-2 Phillies lead.

Franco finished the night 3-for-4. He is hitting .350 (7-for-20) in his last five games.

"I'm just not trying to let my emotions (get the best of me)," Franco said of overcoming his slow start. "I know it's going to happen, I know it's coming. So I just try to go out there, try to put good swings, and try to have good at-bats. I know it's coming, I'm not worried about it."

Velasquez, meanwhile, sounded plenty worried exactly two weeks earlier when Franco's previous grand slam wasn't enough to overcome the 5-0 deficit he created in a game against the Mets at Citizens Bank Park. But like Franco, the emotional right-hander has been able to make adjustments.

On Wednesday night the adjustment was easy, in theory: throwing first-pitch strikes. Velasquez threw a strike to begin 19 of his 26 at-bats and it allowed him to pitch into the seventh inning for the first time since his final start of the 2016 season (and, again, just the fourth time in a Phillies uniform). 

"It got me to 6 1/3 (innings)," Velasquez said with a sense of relief. "I was in control the whole way. Some pitches got away from me but I managed to get outs and keep going. ... If I'm going to go deep in games I've got to get ahead as soon as possible. Whatever it may be, changeup, curveball, slider, whatever, I've got to attack."

Perhaps the only thing Velasquez was happier about than pitching into the seventh inning was the result of the game. He was well aware it was the first time the Phillies had won a game he pitched in 2017.

"First of all, I mean, hey, I won," Velasquez kidded while interrupting the first question of his postgame media session.

"I think he’s trying to pitch to more contact and not trying to make perfect pitches and strike everybody out with perfect pitches," Mackanin said. "He pitched to a little more contact, which was good. I think once he puts that all together, he’ll have that total ensemble working for him. And know when to pitch soft and when to throw hard. He’s making good improvements."

Tiger Tale

Hector Neris apparently has made a choice for a closer song. Although he didn't come into a save situation on Wednesday (Saunders' eighth-inning home run gave the Phillies a four-run lead), Neris jogged in from the bullpen to Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger."

Fittingly, a famous Tiger was in town: Dabo Swinney, the head coach of the national champion Clemson Tigers, watched Wednesday's game from the first row behind the Phillies dugout. In an interview with CSN's Gregg Murphy, Swinney, in town for the NFL Draft, said he went to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field last year when the draft was in Chicago and that the Cubs had gone on to win the World Series.

So, you know, save your parade spot on Broad St., folks.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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