Phillies 5, Rays 5: Vince Velasquez determined to improve his curveball

Phillies 5, Rays 5: Vince Velasquez determined to improve his curveball

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PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Vince Velasquez wants to be known as more than Vinny Velo in 2017.

That's why his mission this spring is to polish up his curveball.

Velasquez pitched two crisp, scoreless innings in his spring debut against the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday. He allowed a hit and struck out one. The strikeout came on one of the four curveballs that he threw.

"The curveball could be a huge factor if I could locate it and use it whenever I want," he said after the game. "If I can get strikes with my curveball, I won't have to worry about throwing a lot of extra pitches and I'll be able to get guys out earlier."

That could help him stay in games longer, thus addressing another area he needs to improve on if he's ever going to be the No. 1 starter he aspires to be.

Velasquez has the best fastball velocity on the Phillies' starting staff. He averaged 94 mph last season and topped out at 97.8, according to MLB's Statcast. Velasquez threw his curveball 13.6 percent of the time last season, but hitters feasted on it to the tune of a .297 batting average and a .581 slugging percentage.

He will have better success with the pitch if he can get it down consistently. Velasquez said catcher A.J. Ellis stressed that to him in his brief time with the Phillies last season. Ellis told Velasquez that the key to keeping the curveball down was trusting it and throwing it with conviction.

How does a guy with the stuff Velasquez possesses not trust it?

"I don't know," he said. "I have my bread-and-butter fastball and changeup. I just have some type of hesitation with curveballs. I'm afraid of leaving it up, I'm afraid of burying it, bouncing it in the dirt. If I can establish location on that pitch right now, I'm not going to have any doubts during the season. So all those fears, all those doubts, all those hesitations -- it's best to get them out now. Work on them now and when the season comes, there shouldn't be anything to worry about."

Velasquez's troubles keeping his curveball down may stem from his spin rate. Among the 117 pitchers who threw more than 200 curveballs last season, he ranked 74th in spin rate, according to MLB's Statcast.

But don't tell him that.

"Spin rate is ridiculous," he said. "I don't trust spin rate.

"I'm not too worried about my spin. I can't even throw it for a strike right now. So I shouldn't be worried about spin rate; I should be worried about my strike rate."

OK, then.

Velasquez, 24, has the ability to be a top-of-the-rotation talent. He just needs to command everything better, pitch deeper into games and develop the arm durability to be a 200-inning guy.

He believes he can do it. He said Wednesday's outing against the Rays was a good start.

"I realize my potential," he said. "That's why I'm working hard. I would love to be a No. 1 starter. I would love to be an opening day starter. But there are a lot of factors that play into it. I have a lot of work to do to show these people what I can be, and if that's a No. 1 starter, then I want to be that guy."

Manager Pete Mackanin believes Velasquez could one day be a No. 1.

"It's a matter of putting it all together," Mackanin said. "I think he has the capacity, mentally, to make adjustments and learn from his mistakes. Over time, I think he has a chance to be an ace."

The game
The Phillies rallied for two runs in the top of the ninth to earn a 5-5 tie with the Rays. Jesmuel Valentin and Hector Gomez, two projected members of the Triple A infield, both had doubles in the inning and Roman Quinn had a key walk.

Reliever Michael Mariot pitched out of a two-on, no-out jam in the bottom of the ninth to preserve the tie. Catcher Jorge Alfaro's tireless work on blocking the ball paid off as he had two important blocks to help strand a runner at third.

Aaron Altherr led the offense with a double, a triple and three RBIs.

Up next
The Phillies play the Blue Jays in Dunedin on Thursday. All eyes will be on Aaron Nola as he makes his first start of the spring (see story).

Instant Replay: Phillies 8, Mariners 2

Instant Replay: Phillies 8, Mariners 2

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SEATTLE — Aaron Nola pitched well and Maikel Franco came up huge with his bat and his glove in leading the Phillies to an 8-2 win over the Seattle Mariners in an interleague game on Tuesday night.

Nola won his second straight start to improve to 5-5.

Franco gave Nola a 3-2 lead with a tiebreaking, leadoff homer in the top of the seventh then preserved the lead with a sensational diving play to end the bottom of the inning.

Freddy Galvis had three singles and drove in two important runs late in the game.

The win was just the Phillies' 11th in 42 games on the road this season. They are 25-51 overall.

Starting pitching report
Nola reached a career-high of 113 pitches over seven gutsy innings. He gave up five hits and two runs and got a bunch of big outs with men on base. He walked four and struck out nine.

Nola got out of jams with two men on base three times, including in the bottom of the seventh when he preserved a one-run lead by striking out Mike Zunino and getting Jean Segura on a groundball to third. Franco made a tremendous diving play on the ball to end the inning and prevent the tying run from scoring.

Nola has won two straight starts. He has pitched 14 1/3 innings over that span, allowed just three runs and racked up 17 strikeouts.

Lefty James Paxton did not give up a hit until the fifth inning. He allowed three runs in seven innings of work. He gave up Franco's go-ahead homer.

Bullpen report
Joaquin Benoit pitched a scoreless eighth inning to preserve a two-run lead.

The Seattle bullpen allowed five runs in two innings.

At the plate
Franco ignited a game-tying, two-run rally in the top of the fifth. He led off that inning with a double, the Phillies' first hit. Cameron Perkins followed with an infield hit and Cameron Rupp drew a walk. The Phillies then scored a pair of runs on consecutive sacrifice fly balls by Ty Kelly and Daniel Nava. Galvis followed with a single and third base coach Juan Samuel got a little too aggressive in sending Rupp from second base. Rupp was cut down at the plate.

Franco's go-ahead homer in the seventh was his 10th of the season. Galvis pushed home an insurance run in the eighth. He followed Nava's leadoff double with an RBI single. Galvis drove home another run with a hit in the top of the ninth and Aaron Altherr put it out of reach with a two-run homer, his 13th of the season.

Segura smacked a two-run homer in the third to give the Mariners a 2-0 lead.

In the field
Franco made a diving stab on Segura's smash down the third-base line to end the seventh inning and keep the Phils up by a run.

A night off
Odubel Herrera, he of several recent miscues and lapses in concentration, did not start Tuesday night. Manager Pete Mackanin said it was a night off, not a benching. Herrera said he has to start playing smarter baseball (see story).

Health check
Jerad Eickhoff, on the disabled list with an upper-back strain, will throw a bullpen session on Wednesday. That will help determine if he's ready to return in the coming days.

Up next
The two-game series concludes on Wednesday afternoon. Rookie right-hander Mark Leiter Jr. (1-0, 3.60) pitches against Mariners ace Felix Hernandez (3-2, 4.68). Leiter pitched six scoreless innings in his first big-league start Friday in Arizona.

Scott Kingery pops 2 homers in second game with Triple A Lehigh Valley

Scott Kingery pops 2 homers in second game with Triple A Lehigh Valley

Scott Kingery's power didn't take long to transition to Triple A.

In his second game since being promoted from Double A to the IronPigs, the Phillies' second base prospect belted two homers in Lehigh Valley's 14-5 loss to Pawtucket on Tuesday night.

Arguably the most exciting player on the Phillies' farm this season, Kingery caught everyone's attention by blasting 18 home runs in 69 games at Reading. That, along with a .313/.379/.608 batting line and 19 stolen bases, earned him a highly anticipated jump to Triple A and Coca-Cola Park, home of the IronPigs.

"It looks like you can get one out to left," Kingery said ahead of his Triple A debut on Monday. "But it looks real deep to center."

Kingery was right — both of his shots Tuesday went to left field. He finished 2 for 5 with three RBIs in the leadoff spot for Lehigh Valley, hitting in front of a loaded lineup of J.P. Crawford, Jorge Alfaro, Dylan Cozens, Nick Williams and Andrew Pullin.

The IronPigs are an International League-best 49-29 and that should only improve with Kingery now in the fold.

"I know what I'm capable of and I know what I need to improve on," Kingery said Monday. "Wherever I'm at, I'm going to come out here and try to work on whatever I think I need to improve on and to give myself the best shot to get moved up."

In his debut, Kingery made a dazzling, over-the-head diving catch that was featured on ESPN's SportsCenter (see story).

On Tuesday, he was back to the long ball.