Tonight Vince Velasquez countenanced his eternal grimace against the samsonite shag flowing from the Unpronounceable Pentagrammaton (GSLMN). The duo captained a biblical battle between two minor tribes destined to be conquered by a greater regional empire, like the Cubs, eventually. But for now we poor peasants must slog through this wearying rivalry, worn down by equal parts frustration and contempt.
Velasquez was far from perfect tonight, but he gave us reason to hope. As you well know and I have carped for seemingly innumerable Vinnie-recaps, he tends to nibble with power pitches, get into deep count after deep count, rely heavily on walks and strikeouts, and fear contact. He has been wild up, both in the zone and out, and the end result this season has been short outings with lots of runs.
Tonight Vinnie showed that he can adjust. He kept his pitches down, stayed in the zone, and relied on his defenders to retire almost all the hitters. Through the middle of his outing he retired 10 Mets in a row, culminating in a 7 pitch 5th in which he induced three weak groundballs. At that point VV looked to be cruising, having allowed no runs and thrown just 67 pitches.
But even up to that point, Velasquez had shown some signs of weakness. He narrowly escaped the first inning without giving up a run. Indeed, his first inning was ambiguous: it looked a bit like his previous outings. He fell behind the first two batters and walked Asdrubal Cabrera. After a groundball exchanged Cabrera at first for Yoenis Cespedes, Jay Bruce ripped a ball past a diving Tommy Joseph inside the firstbase line. The ball skidded into the corner and Cespedes lumbered around third. Fortunately, Michael Saunders hit the cut-off, Tommy Joseph, who showed off his ex-catcher’s arm with a strike to Cameron Rupp that just barely nabbed Cespedes. On contact, it looked like a sure run for the Mets, only good defense kept that run off the board.
After this dramatic inning Vinnie settled in, but he still made some mistakes. Both Walker and Cespedes just missed fastballs in the middle of the plate. Both might have been homers at other stadiums or if the batters had waited a nanosecond longer to swing. Getting outs on mistakes could be good for Velasquez, if it teaches him not to nibble with his great stuff. On the other hand, the end of his night might have encouraged his nibbling again.
As Velasquez entered the bottom of the sixth inning he held a 2-0 lead. In fact, he himself had driven in the second run. To be sure, the Phillies did not look feisty against Robert Gsellman. In the early going they struggled to get runners on. And throughout the matchup, GSLMN fooled them with a tailing fastball reminiscent of the Vance Worley special. In 7+ innings, GSLMN struck out 7, 6 looking. Nevertheless, the Phillies scored first and second in this one. The first run came in the fourth. Altherr led off by getting hit on the hand (!!!) and moved the third on a single by Odubel Herrera. This put runners on the corners and no outs for Maikel Franco. Mired in a slump, Franco still managed to drive home Altherr with a slow bouncer to Jose Reyes at third.
The second run came in the fifth. Rupp led off with a double crushed into the left-center gap. He moved to third when Freddy Galvis grounded out to second, and he scored on a VV single to right through a drawn in infield. The Phillies would load the bases in this inning for Maikel Franco. But the slump muck mired.
So, Vinnie entered the sixth cruising with a two-run lead and the dreams of millions of Phillies fans riding on his right arm. He would leave the inning down by a run, not to return to the game. The inning began ominously when GSLMN led off with a single. VV quickly erased that mistake as Curtis Granderson grounded into a 3-6 double play in which, once again, Joseph showed off his cannon. At this point, I at least was sure Velasquez would be out for a seventh inning, seeking to pass a lead on to Neris and Benoit. Sadly, Cabrera ripped a single and now it dawned on me that Velasquez had lost his command just a bit. His pitches this inning had started to come up in the zone. He was missing high instead of low and leaving pitches across the middle of the zone. With Cabrera on first, he pitched carefully to Cespedes and walked him. Jay Bruce then stepped up as the go-ahead run. Now, in a competitive season, I hope that Pete Mackanin would have a lefty reliever ready to face Bruce in this situation. But as long as we’re focussed on developing talent and honing skill, I think it is fine to let VV try to fight through that at bat. Unfortunately, he lost the battle. He floated a first-pitch changeup over the heart of the plate and Bruce lined it over the right field fence. Velasquez would eventually finish the inning after getting back in trouble, in part thanks to miscommunication between him and Franco on a gimme pop-up over the mound. But the Mets led 3-2.
The game, however, remained exciting. The Phillies so far this season have played in almost nothing but close games. The offense might not be running on all cylinders yet, but it is never out of a close game late. Tonight they once again mounted a come back. In the top of the eighth, Altherr chased GSLMN with a double. (Aside: why on earth would you let your starting pitcher bat just to face one batter the next inning?) Hererra moved Altherr to third on a ground out. Franco slumped further into the watery gyre—he struck out. And Saunders saved his bacon by dumping a rotten grapefruit in front of a sliding Cespedes. They’d tied the game briefly.
The tie lasted three batters: the third out of the top of the eighth and the first two batters of the bottom half. Edubray Ramos came in and promptly surrendered a single to Cespedes and a replay of Bruce’s homer from the sixth. The only difference was Ramos threw a fastball.
Still not defeated, the Phillies mounted a minor rally in the ninth. Galvis tripled and scored on a sacrifice fly by Daniel Nava to bring the Phillies within one, 5-4. But Hernandez could not keep the game alive, striking out to end it.
I found this game heartbreaking. Velasquez came so close to a new proof of concept. After being dogged by impatient pundits calling for him to be moved to the bullpen, he almost shoved their words back down their throats with a fantastic outing with none of his usual defects. Of course, he still managed a quality start, just as the lauded Jared Eickhoff did in his last start. So, he should hardly feel bad about this performance. But it was so close to something quite excellent, quite exciting. Let’s hope he builds on this next time out.
Fun fact: the Phillies have lost 9 games, 1 by 10 runs, 1 by 3 runs, 2 by 2 runs, and 5 by 1 run.