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).

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

BALTIMORE -- A tempestuous three-game series between the Red Sox and Baltimore wound up with Matt Barnes being ejected for throwing a fastball behind the head of Orioles star Manny Machado in Boston's 6-2 victory Sunday.

Barnes' ejection was the latest facet of this tense rivalry between AL East rivals. His high, very inside pitch came two days after Machado took out Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia with a spikes-high slide.

Pedroia watched from the dugout for a second straight day Sunday with knee and ankle injuries. Machado apologized with a text message on Friday night, but that evidently wasn't the end of it.

When Machado batted in the sixth inning, Eduardo Rodriguez threw three pitches down and in near the knees. He came up again in the eighth and Barnes' pitch whizzed behind Machado and hit his bat. The ball hit Machado and rolled foul, and plate umpire Andy Fletcher tossed Barnes (see full recap).

Bour's 3-run homer lifts Marlins past Padres
SAN DIEGO -- Justin Bour hit a three-run homer to cap the six-run sixth inning and help the Miami Marlins to a 7-3 victory Sunday against the San Diego Padres.

The first six Marlins batters reached and scored in the sixth, helping Tom Koehler (1-1) to his first win of the season.

San Diego's Luis Perdomo came off the disabled list and shut down the Marlins through five before hitting the wall in the sixth. Martin Prado hit a leadoff single, Christian Yelich walked and Giancarlo Stanton hit an RBI single to chase Perdomo.

Craig Stammen (0-1) came on and allowed Marcell Ozuna's RBI double just past the glove of first baseman Wil Myers and J.T. Realmuto's RBI single to left before Bour hit a no-doubter to right field, his third.

Kevin Quackenbush relieved and got three straight outs (see full recap).

Astros use 2-run 10th to beat Rays
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Brian McCann and Yuli Gurriel both had RBI singles in the 10th inning, and the Houston Astros rallied from an early four-run deficit to beat the Tampa Bay Rays 6-4 on Sunday.

Carlos Beltran opened the 10th by drawing a walk from Ryan Garton (0-1) and went to second on Jose Altuve's single. After reaching third on Carlos Correa's fly to center, Beltran scored to make it 5-4 on McCann's hit to right.

Gurriel's two-out single put Houston ahead 6-4.

Luke Gregerson (1-1) went a scoreless ninth before Ken Giles got three out for his fifth save.

The Astros tied it at 4 on pinch-hitter Evan Gattis' sacrifice fly off closer Alex Colome, who was bidding for a two-inning save, in the ninth.

Brad Miller had an RBI triple, Steven Souza Jr. hit a two-run homer, and Jesus Sucre added a run-scoring single as the Rays went up 4-0 in the first (see full recap).

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

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A constant theme during the Phillies' playoff run from 2007-11 was that even when the offense was sputtering, it never felt like they were out of a game. That group of players picked up so many late hits and mounted so many comebacks that even a five-run deficit heading into the final three innings felt like a winnable game.

The 2017 Phillies are a much different, much less experienced, much less powerful team, but their late-game offense has been a surprisingly fun development this April.

The Phillies used back-to-back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning Sunday to pick up a 5-2 win over the Braves and a series sweep (see Instant Replay). Cesar Hernandez hit a go-ahead, two-run shot off hard-throwing reliever Arodys Vizcaino. Aaron Altherr followed with a solo shot on the next pitch. The Braves switched pitchers, then Odubel Herrera hit a solo homer of his own.

Just like that, ballgame.

The Phillies lead the majors with six home runs in the eighth inning. That's more than the Cubs, Red Sox, Rockies, Angels, Mariners, Pirates, White Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Giants and Astros have combined.

They've scored 14 runs in the eighth inning and 27 in innings 7-9. Both figures rank third-best in the National League behind only the Diamondbacks and Nationals.

Unexpected late-game heroics and unexpected power from some unlikely sources.

"It's always a bonus to have a team like that," manager Pete Mackanin said. "These guys pull for each other. We have a good bench, we have some interchangeable players that can step in and do a good job. ... They're fighters and it's good to see."

Hernandez continues to open eyes with his developing power. He has four home runs through 18 games after hitting six all of last season. He has more extra-base hits (nine) than Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Paul Goldschmidt and Robinson Cano, among many others.

And he's done it without sacrificing his eye at the plate and slap-hitting ability. Hernandez is hitting .338 through 80 at-bats.

Hernandez gained muscle over the winter and reported to spring training looking noticeably bigger, but Mackanin credits the power surge to a change in his swing plane.

"He had an uppercut swing," Mackanin said. "He worked underneath the ball, which made him a low-ball hitter. I think the fact that we convinced him to level out his swing and stay on top of the ball -- work above the ball and work your way down through the strike zone -- I think has not only given him more power but also (the ability) to hit more line drives and use the whole field."

Makes sense. Managers, hitting coaches and players talk all the time about how you don't hit a home run when you're trying to hit a home run, you hit one when you're thinking up the middle and catch the ball with the barrel.

Hernandez hasn't lofted more balls because he's trying to loft them, he's done it by getting stronger and developing a more consistent swing.

"He's an on-base guy and a leadoff hitter and now I'm starting to think of him as a cleanup hitter as well," Mackanin said jokingly. "It is nice. It's good to see. He's not trying to hit home runs. He's trying to hit line drives and when you work above the ball and level your swing out and you hit the bottom half of the ball, the ball is going to go up with a line-drive swing. Because of that, he's hitting more gaps and hitting for more power."

In a way, it's similar to what Herrera did last season, jumping from eight home runs as a rookie to 15 as a sophomore as he continued learning the strike zone, learning major-league pitchers and learning of his own capabilities.

"I love watching Cesar hit the ball," Herrera said. "He has a beautiful swing and he makes great contact on the ball. It's great to be behind him."

With Hernandez leading off and Herrera batting third, the top of the Phillies' lineup has gotten on base a ton. They've gotten a .384 on-base percentage from the 1-3 spots in the order. Just imagine how many additional runs the Phillies would have produced to this point if Maikel Franco or Tommy Joseph were hitting consistently.

"I like all three right there," Mackanin said. "I like Howie Kendrick, also. I'm anxious for him to get back (from the DL) and then we'll go from there. We've got some good things going. We've got a good bench. We've got Altherr, (Daniel) Nava, (Andres) Blanco. We've got (Andrew) Knapp who's doing a good job behind the plate. I think we're in pretty good shape that way."

It's not going to be an explosive, league-leading offense, but it's certainly a deeper offense than it was a year ago. An addition like Nava, for example, has proven to be underrated and pay early dividends. Remember, he was one of the last men chosen for the opening day roster. So far this April, he's succeeded in every role in which the Phillies have used him.

Despite not playing regularly, Nava has reached base in 16 of his first 31 plate appearances, something no first-year Phillie has done since Jeremy Giambi in 2002.

"Nava is really valuable to us," Mackanin said. "He's a part-time player that gives you good at-bats, quality at-bats. He works the count, obviously the first game of the season he showed us he's got power. Gap power and the occasional home run from both sides of the plate. 

"Watching a guy like that, you can't help but notice. If it was me and I was a free swinger, I'd go up to him and ask him, 'How do I tone it down a little bit?' He just doesn't get himself out."