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August 04, 2016

Velasquez fails to complete sweep as Giants pull out extra-inning win

Six days earlier, Vince Velasquez was in the visiting clubhouse at Turner Field following his start against the Atlanta Braves when one of the more interesting trade deadline rumors began to circulate. The Phillies and Texas Rangers were in deep discussions about the possibility of a deal involving the 24-year-old, hard-throwing right-hander.

It was somewhat perplexing from the Phillies perspective, the idea of trading a talented young starting pitcher under club control for five more years. But the current front office did trade Ken Giles under somewhat similar circumstances this winter, and if they’re not completely sold on Velasquez, who entered his start Thursday afternoon with a 3.32 ERA in 18 starts in 2016, there’s no harm seeing what the market says his value is at a time when contending teams are desperate for pitching.

But what’s not to like about Velasquez? On Thursday, Velasquez climbed over the 100-inning mark on the season … but it was just the second time he had racked up 100 innings at any level in six seasons since he was drafted by the Houston Astros in 2010.

And even in individual starts, durability has been an issue for Velasquez. On an afternoon after the Phillies needed six relievers to deliver seven shutout innings to keep pace with the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday night, Velasquez gave the Phillies just five innings on Thursday afternoon.

He’s gone five innings or fewer in seven of 18 starts (we won’t count the two-pitch outing he had before landing on the disabled list). Compared to his young counterparts what have been in the rotation for the whole season (Jerad Eickhoff, 5 IP or fewer in just five of 22 starts; Aaron Nola, in eight of 20) Velasquez has some work to do in the efficiency department.

He wasn’t economic with his pitches on Thursday (he needed 93 in five innings) and it meant manager Pete Mackanin had to turn to an overworked bullpen that was also without one of its stalwarts (Jeanmar Gomez spent his second day on paternity leave).

The relief corps was up to the task until the game reached extra innings. In his second inning of work, Severino Gonzalez served up a solo home run to Denard Span to begin the 10th inning as the San Francisco Giants avoided and sweep and handed the Phillies a 3-2 defeat.

"He started to develop little blister on his finger, that’s why he came out of the game," Mackanin said of Velasquez, who was visited by a trainer to look at his pitching hand after issuing his third walk of the game with no one out and two on in the fifth inning.

So Velasquez would have continued to pitch into the sixth, despiting needing more than 90 pitches in the game's first five innings?

"I asked him if it affected his pitches and he said no," Mackanin said. "But you could see it was starting (to). He was at around 90 pitches so I took him out of the game. I didn’t want to get him into a situation where he might miss his next start. It wasn’t a bad blister, but you could see it developing. And I wanted to make sure with 90 pitches that he came out."

Despite his neat ERA and his gaudy strikeout rate (his 9.99 strikeouts-per-9 innings ranks 9th in the NL, just in front of teammate Aaron Nola), Velasquez has developed a habit of creating a high pitch count too early in games.

Among NL starters with at least 100 innings, only 10 have a higher pitch-per-inning average than Velasquez (16.6 P/IP). And his average of four pitches per plate appearance ranks seventh in the NL. To be fair, the latter is not entirely indicative of a struggling pitcher: Marlins ace Jose Fernandez and Dodgers Rookie of the Year contender Kenta Maeda rank fifth and sixth, respectively.

But, again, after the bullpen was taxed a night earlier, Velasquez knew he had to do his best to pitch deep on Thursday afternoon.

"It was tough," Velasquez said. "I had to push myself and at least get to five innings. We used a lot of pitchers last night and starting out with 26 pitches in the first inning doesn't help. So I just had to make my pitches and manage to get through five." 

Cutting down walks could also help Velasquez trim his pitch count: he's walked 13 batters in his last four starts and leads the  team with 39 walks in 19 games. 

"(That's) kind of bad, actually really bad," Velasquez said. "And I never had intentions of walking so many guys especially this early, starting out the game in five innings or walking this amount guys in back to back to back starts. So I've got to work on some things in the bullpen, utilizing my two-seam, locating my two-seam. My secondary pitches are just kind of brutal right now."

Mackanin was asked about Velasquez's inability to develop efficiency, despite having an array of strong pitches in his arsenal.

"It’s a great question because he is a power pitcher but, the thing I like about him is he uses all of his pitches, he uses two-seamers, he’ll throw his changeup, he’ll mix in his breaking ball," Mackanin said. "I think he has a tendency to try to pitch too much instead of trying to establish that fastball early. ... He’s pitching very well, but he’s just not locating as well as he’s going to in the future."

Velasquez has managed to rack up at least 90 pitches in five innings or fewer in four of his starts this season. While his manager may have wanted to, Velasquez was not trying to use the blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand as an excuse on Thursday, although he did admit it also was far from a non-factor.

"When I have a solid feel of the ball it kind of aggravates it a little bit, putting pressure, doing two-seam changeups, utilizing the middle finger pretty much every pitch," he said. "So we are working on it now but I think it's fine. I should be good by the next start."

The loss was the second of the season for Gonzalez, one of more than a couple of relievers the current ‘pen who have been on the Allentown-Philadelphia never-ending shuttle all season. 

Elvis Araujo, another one of those pitchers who only joined the team on Thursday morning, was sent right back to Allentown after the game as the Phillies will activate Gomez off the paternity list. Gomez's wife gave birth to a son on Thursday.

The win was just the fifth in 18 games from the National League West-leading Giants since the All-Star break. The Phillies, meanwhile, won their first series since the break but fell to 10 games under .500 on the season (50-60) before embarking on a six-game Southern Californian trip when they left South Philly early Thursday evening.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21