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April 26, 2016

Velasquez matches Scherzer, Franco delivers as Phillies win fourth in five games

WASHINGTON – For three consecutive at-bats between the two players, it felt like Maikel Franco and his third base counterpart on the Washington Nationals, Anthony Rendon, were playing an odd game of one-on-one on a baseball field.

In his second at-bat of the night, Rendon hit a scalding line drive toward the third base line with one on and one out. Franco dived to his backhand side, made a highlight reel worthy stab, and then threw to first to complete the out.

Two innings later, Franco came up with two on and no one out in the fifth. He hit a hard one-hopper at Rendon, who tagged the base runner at third, Odubel Herrera, for one out and fired to first to get Franco, too, quieting the potential rally.

In the next half inning, Rendon came to bat with two on, one out and his team trailing by two runs. He hit the ball toward Franco, of course.

Instead of throwing to second for a traditional potential 5-4-3 double play, Franco scurried to the third base bag, stepped on it and threw to first where Rendon arrived safely. The Nationals next two batters collected hits off Vince Velasquez to tie the game.

"That was a mistake," manager Pete Mackanin said. "It was an easy double play."

Franco said bench coach Larry Bowa called him over to tell him just that.

The second-year third baseman may have erred on judgment in the field in his battle with Rendon, but he made up for it with one of his trademark mighty swings.

After Andres Blanco collected his third hit of the night with one out in the seventh, Franco drilled a 400-foot, heat-seeking missile to dead center. It bounced off the wall, just out of the reach of Nationals leaping center fielder Michael Taylor, Blanco came around with the go-ahead run, and the Phillies held on to a 4-3 victory.

Velasquez's final line was average, but it was good enough to hang with Max Scherzer, put his team in position to win, and get a Roy Halladay comparison from his manager, too.

"I remember sitting with (former Phillies coach) Sammy Perlozzo after the game and saying, 'Boy, (Halladay) was terrible,' and he only gave up three runs," Mackanin said. "I'm not comparing him to Halladay, but I didn't like the way (Velasquez) pitched and he only gave up three runs, which is a good indication (of how good he is)." 

"It wasn't about me today, it was a team effort," Velasquez said. 

The win was the fourth in the Phillies last five games. The Phillies (10-10) have a .500 record for the first time after 20 games since they began the 2014 season with a 15-15 mark after 30 games.

Those 2014 Phillies were in the beginning of a stretch that saw them lose 20 of 29 games, but, hey, that was a long time ago, before the front office committed to a rebuild. So cheer up, eh?

"We're fine," Velasquez said. "We kind of started off slow a little bit, then got back on the horse and gathered up just fine. Today was a great job all around."

For the second straight Velasquez start, the Phillies gloves and bats nearly failed the young right-hander.

Last week, in his first start since striking out 16 in a shutout, Velasquez saw Blanco get caught on the base paths to squander an early rally and watched Ryan Howard drop a routine throw to ignite a rally for the opposition. Meanwhile, the Phillies offense had scored a grand total of five runs in Velasquez’s three starts entering Tuesday night.

The bats hooked him up immediately against Washington.

Odubel Herrera worked the first of his two walks on the night no the first four pitches Max Scherzer threw to begin the game. Scherzer’s fifth pitch landed over the centerfield fence.

The two-run home run was the first of the season for Blanco, who was getting a spot start at shortstop for an ailing Freddy Galvis.

Velasquez didn’t have his same electric stuff that made him an instant fan favorite 12 days earlier, but he played well with the lead. While pitching around reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper – the first walk non-intentional, the second intentional – Velasquez avoided trouble with the rest of the lineup in the game’s first four innings, with the exception of a leadoff double by Daniel Murphy in the second.

When Velasquez didn’t run into problems, it came as a result of Franco failing to turn what looked like a routine double play. Harper and Ryan Zimmerman followed Franco’s fielding brain fart with back-to-back base hits to tie the game.

Franco would have an opportunity to make up for it with his bat. And although his game-winning hit came with a scare – he turned his right ankle between first and second on the double and had to be checked out by the team’s athletic training staff before remaining in the game – it was better than the alternative of hitting a ball toward Rendon and continuing the bizarre ping pong game they had been playing earlier in the game.

After Franco (1-for-5, RBI double, four other balls hit to Rendon) and Velasquez (6 innings, 3 earned runs, 4 strikeouts, and 3 walks) were finished with their contributions, the bullpen held down the Nats bats. 

David Hernandez got Ryan Zimmerman staring at a knee-bending curveball with two on (including an intentionally-walked Harper) and two out to end the seventh, Hector Neris struck out two of the four batters he faced in the eighth, and  Jeanmar Gomez pulled off the biggest save of his early closing career. 

Rendon's two-out single brought Harper to the plate in the ninth, two nights removed from his game-tying, ninth-inning, game-tying, Major League-leading ninth home run of the season.

Gomez, who served up one of those nine home runs, on a go-ahead shot in the 10th inning at Citizens Bank Park nine days earlier, got Harper to bounce out to Franco after an eight-pitch battle to close out the game.

"It had a lot of drama to it, that game with that guy," Mackanin said. "I'm going to walk him every time we face him this series. I'm kidding. That's a joke."