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Velasquez's plan for '20? 'Grip it and rip it'

@ToddZolecki
February 24, 2020

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Phillies right-hander Vince Velasquez needed just 26 pitches to get through two innings on Monday at Spectrum Field. Yeah, the pitch count jumped out to him too.

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Phillies right-hander Vince Velasquez needed just 26 pitches to get through two innings on Monday at Spectrum Field.

Yeah, the pitch count jumped out to him too.

“A shocker,” Velasquez said during an 8-7 victory over the Orioles.

Velasquez is fighting for a job in the Phils' rotation for the first time since he joined the organization following a trade with Houston in December 2015. If he expects to beat Nick Pivetta, Ranger Suarez and others for the No. 5 job, he will need to be less predictable with his game plan, command more pitches down in the zone and work more efficiently. Velasquez averaged 17.3 pitches per inning from 2016-19, which ranks 107th out of 115 pitchers with 400 or more innings pitched.

Running high pitch counts has been Velasquez’s Achilles' heel. He needs to get that number down.

But how?

“Just be free, man,” he said. “Trust myself and keep going forward. Grip it and rip it.”

But there is more to it than just feeling free. A point of emphasis in camp under new pitching coach Bryan Price is being able to locate pitches down in the strike zone. Velasquez’s orders last season? Pump four-seam fastballs up in the zone.

“I think it’s something you have to work really hard at,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said about locating the ball down. “Your body was trained to do it for one way. He pitched down before, but then they strictly went up.

“So it's just retraining your brain and your mechanics. He was working really hard with Bryan on it. Just using both. Why take one weapon away from you? Use both. A lot of times, when you have the ability to pitch down, it makes pitching up more effective. If you see the same thing every time, you get used to it.”

Velasquez has bought in.

“It falls in that category of pitching freely, pitching to what we see and trusting that stuff,” Velasquez said. “I was very effective at the top of the zone, so I want to see how I can be at the bottom of the zone. The fact that I have that weapon to go up in the zone and utilize that pitch just makes it even more useful to go down in the zone.

“I know everyone talks about living down in the zone, which is a very quality pitch down and away. But if I can go up and down, up and down, it’s just a way of pitching. You can’t be too predictable in this game, especially nowadays with analytics and everything. You have to learn how to utilize it, and utilize it in your favor.”

Velasquez located pitches down on Monday, particularly in the second inning, striking out Pat Valaika looking on a pitch down in the zone and getting Richie Martin to ground into an inning-ending double play on a ball down in the zone.

“I was encouraged by what he did,” Girardi said.

The rotation battle continues on Tuesday, when Suarez faces the Pirates in Bradenton. There is a long way to go before a winner is announced. The runners-up will likely end up in the bullpen.

Velasquez has stated his desire to start. He has not budged off that preference.

“I have that confidence to be that pitcher and I think Bryan is the guy who is going to pull that out of me,” Velasquez said. “I know what the task is. It’s just a matter of what I have to do to earn that spot. Today was a good display of what I can be.”

Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook .