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June 03, 2016

Velasquez labors, but offense delivers as Phillies snap seven-game skid

Which would you like to hear first, the good news or the bad news?

The good news, surely.

For the first time in nine days, the Phillies won. After failing to score more than three runs in seven straight games – all losses – the Phillies scored three runs apiece in both the third and fourth innings to beat the Milwaukee Brewers, 6-3, on Friday night at Citizens Bank Park, where they celebrated 70s Retro Night.

Cameron Rupp’s solo home run began the offensive fireworks and Andres Blanco’s three-run shot an inning later capped the scoring spree. It was the first time in 27 home games this season that the Phillies had multiple home runs.

Of course it’s no coincidence that the Phillies failure to score more than three runs – and no more than two runs six times – coincided with the team’s seven-game losing skid. It’s easier to win games when you can put up crooked numbers in back to back innings.

"It was a big relief, nice to get a six-run lead for a change," manager Pete Mackanin said. "Anytime we score six runs it’s a big deal around here. But I’m hoping this is going to get us going a little bit. You know, loosen us up a bit. A few guys got some hits, we’ll go from there."

It’s difficult, however, to win games when your starting pitcher can’t get out of the fifth inning, let alone pitch into the seventh, and the totality of Vince Velasquez’s first two months are finally coming into focus and not overshadowed by one, memorable and historic afternoon at Citizens Bank Park.

That's the bad news.

Velasquez, who has failed to pitch more than six innings in 10 of his 11 starts this season, has been allergic to attacking the strike zone for six weeks since striking out 16 San Diego Padres (and walking none) in a shutout victory in his first career start at Citizens Bank Park.

Although he’s armed with an electric arm, he’s been unable to harness it. Although he takes the mound with a bravado and tenacity that is reminiscent of a Brett Myers or Jonathan Papelbon, it doesn’t translate when he’s delivering pitches from that mound.

Velasquez’s pitch count climbed to 50 after the first batter of the third inning, opposing pitcher Jimmy Nelson, worked a full count before popping up to second base.

Velasquez allowed each of the first three batters of the fifth inning to reach base – the bottom three hitters in Milwaukee’s lineup – and then gave up a sacrifice fly. After he followed that by walking the bases loaded, Velasquez was met on the mound by Mackanin, who kindly asked for the ball from his starter with just one out in the top of the fifth inning.

The exchange wasn't an ideal one, though, as Velasquez begrudgingly shoved the ball into his manager's hand as he exited. The two met in the tunnel between the dugout and the clubhouse shortly afterward.

 "I didn’t like the way he gave me the ball," Mackanin said. "We talked afterward and we’re cool. Not an issue."

"You're frustrated," Velasquez said. "Who wants to be taken out of the game? But I have to hand the ball over because I can't do anything about it."

Velasquez appears to be reaching a crisis of confidence after a series of similar starts.

Friday night marked the third straight start that Velasquez failed to pitch at least five innings. He hasn’t pitched at least six innings in a game since May 12, and is averaging 5.58 innings per start this season.

Take away the shutout, and that's under 5 1/3 innings per start.

"Just trying to be too precise with my pitches instead of just going out and pitching and doing what I was doing in the beginning of the season," he said. "Just being too fine with my stuff."

But Velasquez isn’t just turning the ball over to the bullpen too early; he’s struggling, period. The 23-year-old right-hander has a 4.86 ERA and has allowed eight home runs in nine starts this his mid-April shutout.

"I don't know what's going on right now," Velasquez said. "I've got to figure something out. Like I said before after my other starts, obviously it's just one of those stages where you're dealing with adversity. We were talking about it earlier. You've got to enjoy the failure. You've got to fight through it. It's getting the best of me. 

"My only job is to work on it tomorrow, go back to film, see what I've got to do. I've got to work on 0-2 counts and try to get ahead of hitters which I was doing in the beginning and then trying to be too fine with my pitches like I said. I started cutting off things and flying off with my pitches and getting too deep into counts."

But perhaps this is to be expected. Velasquez pitched in just 19 games with the Houston Astros as a rookie last season, and only seven of those were starts.

Aaron Nola may be the exception to the rule that young pitchers, even with top-of-the-rotation talent, will endure struggles in their introduction to the major leagues. Velasquez, like a majority of the Phillies roster, is still a work in progress.

And his tutelage might take a bit longer than other pitchers: he made more than 13 starts in just one season (in 2013) since being drafted by in the second round of the 2010 draft.

"You need to get one- or two-pitch outs, and he’s not getting them," Mackanin said. "He’s not doing that. He strikes out a lot of guys. I remember when I was with the (Montreal) Expos, (manager) Felipe (Alou) used to tell Pedro Martinez, I know you’re getting a lot of strikeouts, but you need to economize your pitches. You try to get strikeouts and you end up throwing a lot of pitches. ... So, he just needs to do that. He's young, and he’s learning."

The good news for Velasquez and the Phillies on Friday: his offensive teammates, a collection of hitters that came into the game with a MLB-low 3.09 runs per game, gave him plenty of support. 

The Phillies had gone 70 innings without scoring more than three runs in an inning, and then did it in back-to-back innings on Friday. It was the first time they had scored three or more in consecutive innings in 37 games, since April 23, also against Milwaukee, and also in the third and fourth innings (at Miller Park).

"I don’t know if it’d been ever," Rupp joked afterward. "But we had a lot of energy. We knew at some point it was going to turn. We hadn’t been able to sustain a rally this year, we know, it’s no secret. But we did. We had a big two-out home run from (Andres Blanco). (Maikel) Franco with a two-out base hit. We had some good two-out hits, and I think that was really the key."

•          •          •

  Tommy Joseph went 2-for-4 on Friday night, his second two-hit game in a row, in his third straight start at first base over Ryan Howard. Mackanin said he would sit Howard for "three-or-four games" on Wednesday, and that it could extend or Joseph could gain more regular playing time, period, with productive play. The educated guess here: Joseph starts again on Saturday, Howard returns on Sunday, and then Joseph starts on Monday against Chicago Cubs left-hander Jon Lester.

 • Jonathan Villar, a former Phillies prospect, homered for the second time in as many nights for the Brewers at Citizens Bank Park. Villar is hitting .306 with a .406 OBP and four home runs in 53 games for Milwaukee. Villar was one of two former Phils prospects in Milwaukee's lineup on Friday, along with outfielder Domingo Santana. Both were traded from the Phillies minor league system to the Houston Astros (in the Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence trades). They also landed in Milwaukee in two separate trades.

  • There were many highlights from 70s Retro Night, but I'm not sure any topped a Kiss cover band populated by little people.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21