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March 17, 2016

Velasquez impresses, Mackanin says 5th starter race will go down to wire

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Less than a week after the course was home to the PGA tour, three Phillies pitchers decided to use Wednesday’s off day in the Grapefruit League schedule to test out Copperhead at Innisbrook in Tampa.

“I totally underestimated the course …. if you’re not in the fairway, you’re lost,” Vince Velasquez said a day later. “I’m still drained.”

Velasquez did OK, all things considered. He shot a 79, beating Jeremy Hellickson, David Buchanan and edging out one of Hellickson’s friends, too.

The 23-year-old Southern California native thrives on competition, which was again apparent in the game he actually pays for a living under an unforgiving Florida sun on St. Patrick’s Day in Clearwater.

Velasquez’s pitch count was inching toward 70 when Nick Franklin, the Tampa Bay Rays eight-hole hitter, ripped a pitch off the top of the wall and over the left field fence for a ground-rule double. The near-home run put runners on second and third with one out in the fifth inning, which was to be the pitcher's last inning.

Velasquez had seen enough when his catcher, Gabriel Lino, came to the mound to give the right-hander a break.

“Let’s just get after it,” Velasquez told Lino. “No messing around, let’s just get after it.”

And with that, Velasquez, who’s repertoire includes a filthy, mid-90s fastball and a changeup he's fallen in love with, dispatched the next two hitters with relative ease. Back-to-back strikeouts and back to the dugout with the scoreboard unchanged.

“Last time I was in that situation with a runner on third base and threw a first-pitch curveball and he shot it back up the middle,” Velasquez said of his best moment in the Phillies 6-1 loss to Tampa on Thursday. “That’s the type of situation right there where it’s a key point in the game and you’ve got to really bear down.”

It’s also the type of situation the Phillies front office and coaching staff will file away when they meet behind closed doors and debate the final composition of their starting rotation.

Velasquez entered camp widely viewed as the favorite thanks to his electric arm and position as the prize of the Ken Giles trade. He pitched in 19 games (seven starts) with the Houston Astros last summer and could easily be plugged into a young-and-upcoming Phillies rotation.

But another pitcher that arrived in the deal, left-hander Brett Oberholtzer, could be a stable force in the same young-and-unproven Phillies rotation. He hasn’t allowed a run in eight Grapefruit League innings (three games) and has walked just one batter.

Adam Morgan, the lone holdover from last year’s rotation in the fifth starter race, has come along strong in his last two outings, capped with a performance against the New York Yankees regular lineup (minus Alex Rodriguez) when he allowed just two base runners in four innings.

“Well, Velasquez showed pitchablity also and Morgan did add a few miles per hour on the radar gun, and a cut fastball,” Mackanin said. “So it’s going to be real interesting the last couple of weeks down here.”

“If Eick is ready to go, I definitely see him in the rotation,” pitching coach Bob McClure said, referring to Jerad Eickhoff, who threw in a minor league game for the second time in five days and appears ready to rejoin the rotation this week. “The fifth spot, you know, it’s going to be tough. … That’s probably going to be our toughest decision.”

The decision is only more difficult with each impressive performance from the trio of pitchers. But it might be difficult to keep Velasquez off the major league mound in April since he clearly has the highest ceiling in the arms race.

From the standpoint of his manager, Velasquez, who threw 51 of his 74 pitches for strikes on Thursday, has only improved with each of his four starts this spring.

The thing that liked about him the most is when he got guys on base he softened up, changed speeds,” Mackanin said. “We talked about that earlier in the spring, I said he has to show a little finesse. And he sure showed it today.”

Velasquez allowed one run on three hits in five innings. He struck out seven and walked one.

The only run he gave up came to the game’s first batter: Logan Forsythe hit the third pitch of the game into the crowd of green shirts in the left field berm for a solo home run.

The next two times Forsythe came to the plate? Strikeouts, including the final out in the aforementioned fifth-inning jam Velasquez escaped.

“Like I said, you know he’s got the good stuff,” Mackanin said. Now it boils down to his pitchability. And he certainly really looked good when he got in trouble, and that was key.”

Meanwhile, Morgan hasn’t had to pitch out of any trouble in his last two games because he never created any. Ditto Oberholtzer, who could also be a candidate to begin the season in the bullpen.

Both left-handers are scheduled to throw in a minor league game on Friday in Clearwater (while Charlie Morton takes his turn in the major league game against the Pirates.

“Results are what counts,” Mackanin said. “Spring training is tough to gauge things on results because you don’t always have major league hitters in there, but the quality of pitches and the command, how you pitch behind in the count, those things. Softening up when you get into trouble instead of trying to throw the ball through the brick wall. All those things are important.”

So is it pitchability vs. upside? Morgan, who could put less pressure on the bullpen if he’s as efficient as he’s been this spring, vs. Velasquez, whose big arm could one day land him toward the top of the Phillies rotation.

“Well, Velasquez showed pitchablity also and Morgan did add a few miles per hour on the radar gun, and a cut fastball,” Mackanin said. “So it’s going to be real interesting the last couple of weeks down here.”

The fifth starter race could extend beyond that: the Phillies have three more exhibition games (two at Citizens Bank Park) after the break camp on March 30.

“Without question it’s going to go down to the start of the season,” the manager said.