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April 09, 2016

Velasquez makes 'statement,' leads Phillies to first win in 2016

NEW YORK – The announcer in the press box said it was 41 degrees when Bartolo Colon delivered the first pitch of Saturday night’s game, but it probably felt more like it was in the high 20s when you factored in the wind that was whipping the American flag to and fro beyond the right field fence.

The rain had subsided, but it was not a comfortable night for baseball.

“I was cold – freezing,” Southern California native and Phillies pitcher Vince Velasquez, who made his debut with the team, said afterward. “Hand warmers helped me out a lot. … I had them in my back pockets when I was out there. I touched my butt a little bit and proceeded to pitch.”

Velasquez, deemed the prize of the Ken Giles trade, hopped onto the Citi Field mound in short sleeves anyway. And then he cut through the lineup of the reigning National League champs with relative ease.

Velasquez held New York to three hits (only one went for extra bases) in six shutout innings and Ryan Howard socked his second home run of the season to lead the Phillies to a 1-0 win, their first in 2016.

“It was huge,” Velasquez said. “Huge. I had to come out and make a statement. And try to help a team get the first win.”

The statement?

“Just go out there and dominate,” he said.

Howard, whose home run off Bartolo Colon supplied the game’s only offense, has played alongside plenty of premium pitchers over his 13 years in a Phillies uniform, came away impressed that a pitcher who was only a rookie a year ago felt the need to make a statement for his new team.

“You’ve got to have that mentality,” Howard said. “He’s a guy that has that mentality. You could see it in spring training. It’s almost like he pitches with a chip on his shoulder. He said he wanted to make a statement – what better way to do it than he did tonight?”

In helping to snap the Phillies season-opening four-game losing streak, and preventing them from going 0-5, which would have been the team’s first start since 1934, Velasquez struck out 9 of the 24 batters he faced. Velasquez’s nine strikeouts were the most by a Phillies pitcher in his debut with the team since Roy Halladay punched out nine batters on April 5, 2010 in Washington.

That’s pretty good company to be with after your first game in a Phillies uniform.

“It was fun to watch,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “He's going to be a good one. It's obvious.”

Velasquez may or may not go on to pitch a perfect game in two months or collect a Cy Young Award in the fall, but he’s also just 23-years old. Saturday night marked what was just his eighth major league start, and first since July.

But Velasquez’s talent is real and, for one night, at least, he looked like a building block you could put alongside Maikel Franco and Aaron Nola for the players on the current roster that should be around when the team is contending again.

Velasquez was fearless with his fastball, which hit 96-MPH on an uncomfortable night to hit or pitch in Queens. He mixed in a sweeping curveball and improving changeup, too, to keep Mets hitters off-balanced.

The only hiccup Velasquez had in his first start in a Phillies uniform was an early first inning when he would end up using more than a quarter of his total pitches for the game.

“It’s the first game, the first inning, you get jitters a little bit,” Velasquez said. “So, I had to figure something out.

“He settled down,” Mackanin said of the right-hander, who threw 26 pitches in the first.

When he settled in, he was near-dominant.

After issuing a one-out walk to Wilmer Flores in the second inning, his second of three walks in the game, Velasquez went on a run where he retired 10 of 12 Mets hitters, seven via strikeout.

“He showed great poise,” Howard said. “I mean, that’s a tough lineup. He showed great poise, great command in tough conditions. It was cold. He stuck with his game plan and executed pitches.”

And a funny thing happened after Velasquez night was deemed over after six innings and 99 pitches: the bullpen was perfect.

Hector Neris and Daniel Stumpf pitched a scoreless seventh and David Hernandez was perfect in the eighth. In the ninth, Jeanmar Gomez retired all three batters he faced, too, to record his second career save and first since July of 2014.

“I knew we were going to win as soon as Freddy (Galvis) caught that last ball,” Mackanin joked, referencing the game’s final out. “It's nice to smile for a change, you know?”

And maybe it was just as nice to have someone on the team that was ticked his team was winless and felt the need to “make a statement.”

“We were 0-4,” Velasquez said of what was the worst start for the Phillies since 2006. “You’ve got to go out there and try to get that win because, if we were 0-5 we were just going to hold our heads down low. This is something that could give us a little booster, tomorrow, the next day, and maybe the next day. Who knows.

“We may go on a winning streak from here. You never know. To go out there and make a statement, to show that we’ve got this win, to show that we’re capable of winning, and that we’re not losers.”

Not a bad attitude for a kid with less than 10 major league starts to his name.