Velasquez locks in: 'All about how you finish'

September 20th, 2020

PHILADELPHIA -- threw 69 pitches through three innings Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park. Manager Joe Girardi wondered if the Phillies could squeeze even two more from him. The reality is they needed more than that.

Catcher chatted with Velasquez after the third, saying they needed quicker innings. He asked Velasquez to pitch to contact and put the ball in play. Velasquez listened. He allowed one run over six innings in a 3-1 victory over the Blue Jays, moving the Phillies to 27-25 and maintaining their hold on the seventh seed in the eight-team National League postseason field, with eight games to play. Velasquez threw just 35 pitches over his final three innings.

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“It was big,” Knapp said. “It was big for him and it was big for us.”

The Phillies needed a solid performance from Velasquez, who permanently rejoined the rotation following recent injuries to right-handers Jake Arrieta and Spencer Howard. The Phillies needed Velasquez not only to keep them in the game, but give them innings because the bullpen pitched Game 2 of Friday’s doubleheader and right-hander Adonis Medina is “lined up” to pitch Sunday’s series finale, according to Girardi. Medina is the organization’s No. 6 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. It will be his MLB debut, should it become official.

Velasquez allowed two hits, walked three and struck out six. He threw 104 pitches.

“A big booster for myself,” Velasquez said. “I definitely needed an outing like this. I got a couple dabs at the end of the game, saying, ‘Hey, man, we needed that out of you.’ I don’t look excited, but I feel that I actually did my part. I kind of started out slow. I’m sure people had their doubts, but it’s all about how you finish.”

It was the first time Velasquez pitched six or more innings since he threw seven against Arizona on Aug. 5, 2019, and just the third time he pitched six or more since 2018. It was the 11th time this season a Phillies starter pitched at least six innings and allowed one or no runs. The Cubs (20) and Reds (13) are the only NL staffs to have more.

“I really wanted him to focus on bearing down and getting some early contact,” Knapp said. “He has swing-and-miss stuff and he knows that, and he wants to have guys swing and miss. It just was taking too many pitches today, so I said once we get 0-2, try to strike the guy out. But if it gets to 1-2, 2-2, we need that ball to be put in play. Because they weren’t even catching up to that fastball at all. Whether it’s just foul ball, foul ball, foul ball, we need to get some outs. He did a great job.”

Velasquez allowed a solo home run to Travis Shaw in the fifth inning to make it 1-0. But the Phillies scored twice in the bottom of the inning to take the lead. Jay Bruce doubled, advanced to third on Scott Kingery’s sacrifice bunt and scored on Knapp’s single to left-center field. Knapp later scored the go-ahead run.

Knapp is having a stellar season as J.T. Realmuto’s backup, which is especially important considering Realmuto has not played since Sept. 12 because of a strained left hip flexor. Knapp is batting .321 with one home run, 11 RBIs and a .925 OPS in 70 plate appearances after singling twice and walking once Saturday.

Girardi’s decision to have Velasquez start the sixth meant something to the right-hander. Velasquez’s career numbers the third time through the lineup are not kind. Opponents have a .758 OPS the first time they face him as a starter, a .740 OPS the second time and a .948 OPS the third time. But Velasquez struck out Bo Bichette and Teoscar Hernández swinging on fastballs and got Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to ground out to end the inning.

“That was huge,” Velasquez said. “Knowing that I had [95] pitches, that’s a big booster. [Girardi] likes to talk about trust. That’s something that I want to establish and gain. Those are the big innings where I feel like I thrive sometimes.”

Blake Parker, David Phelps and Tommy Hunter threw three perfect innings in relief.

“Nine up, nine down, it doesn’t get any better than that,” Girardi said. “This time of year, it’s what you need.”