Phillies-Mets 5 things: Vince Velasquez could sure use a confidence boost

Phillies-Mets 5 things: Vince Velasquez could sure use a confidence boost

Phillies at Mets
7:10 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

Hey, the Phillies beat the Mets! 

One win won't change the momentum in this divisional series owned by the Mets since 2014, but it had to feel good for Pete Mackanin and the boys to execute down the stretch against a team that's usually comfortably ahead in the later innings.

Tuesday's game was U-G-L-Y in all phases. Bad defense, dropped throws, boneheaded baserunning, pitchers constantly falling behind hitters. The Mets looked lifeless, for whatever reason. Maybe they left their mojo in Miami.

Here's a look at the middle game of the series:

1. Third time's the charm?
Vince Velasquez's first two starts have not gone well.

He's lasted just nine total innings and given up nine runs, needing 194 pitches to record 27 outs. A rate of 21.6 pitches per inning won't work for anyone and Velasquez knows it.

He was his own harshest critic last Wednesday night in the Phillies' clubhouse after he allowed five runs and walked four Mets in five innings. He has 17 strikeouts in those nine innings, but that's secondary to the quick exits and Velasquez's inability so far to keep the Phillies in games.

With Velasquez, it just might always be this way. One event doesn't seem to have any bearing on the next for him. He can mow through three batters one inning and then completely lose his command and poise the next.

One good start, two good starts, even five good starts won't make the Phillies feel completely comfortable with Velasquez. They're always going to go into a start not knowing whether the bullpen will be needed for two innings or five. He's not the only guy in the majors like that, but he's certainly one of the more volatile starting pitchers in either league.

Velasquez has another chance to conquer the Mets, a swing-and-miss oriented team that he could completely dominate if his command is there. It's also a team that could have him on the ropes early with a three-run homer if he's not hitting spots.

Michael Conforto has done the most damage off Velasquez of any Met. He's 4 for 7 with two homers and a walk. Look for him to lead off.

Yoenis Cespedes is 2 for 6 with a double, a homer and five RBIs against Velasquez. All other active Mets are a combined 9 for 51 (.176) with two extra-base hits and 20 strikeouts.

2. Bullpen notes
The Phillies used five relievers last night but none of them should be unavailable for tonight's game. 

Joely Rodriguez, Edubray Ramos, Hector Neris, Luis Garcia and Joaquin Benoit combined to allow just one hit over five scoreless innings with five strikeouts and none of them threw more than 17 pitches.

The Phillies' bullpen has a 5.01 ERA through 13 games, which ranks 22nd among 30 teams. But keep in mind that includes disastrous outings from Adam Morgan, who was sent to Triple-A, and Jeanmar Gomez, who was demoted from the closer's role.

The key pieces in the Phils' bullpen -- Neris, Benoit, Ramos, Pat Neshek -- have been mostly effective. 

Neris has thrown 7 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out nine and allowing three baserunners. He's picked up right where he left off in 2016.

Neshek has made six scoreless appearances and last week made Cespedes look silly. (Neshek went on paternity leave Wednesday and the Phillies will call up right-hander Ben Lively to have an extra arm, according to CSN's Jim Salisbury.)

Ramos is best known so far for the controversial pitch behind Asdrubal Cabrera's head last week, but he has a 2.84 ERA so far with nine strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings.

And while Benoit did allow the game-winning three-run home run to Bryce Harper over the weekend in D.C., his other six appearances have been scoreless. I've long believed that "percentage of scoreless appearances" is a better stat for a reliever than ERA. One bad outing can skew a reliever's numbers for months, but if he gives up runs only once every seven appearances, he's doing his job.

3. Scouting Gsellman
The Phillies draw the weakest link in the Mets' rotation, 23-year-old right-hander Robert Gsellman (0-1, 9.28 ERA).

Gsellman wasn't a highly-touted prospect like Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom or Zack Wheeler, but he worked his way up to the majors in 2016 after posting strong seasons in the minor leagues the previous two. 

In eight appearances last season (seven starts), Gsellman went 4-2 with a 2.42 ERA, striking out 42 batters in 44 2/3 innings and allowing just one home run.

He faced the Phillies three times as a rookie and won twice, beating them in each of his final two starts. In those games Sept. 25 and Sept. 30, Gsellman allowed one run in 13 innings and struck out 15 against a dead-in-the-water Phillies team.

Gsellman's main pitch is his sinker, which he's thrown 46 percent of the time this season but hasn't been able to command. Opponents are 8 for 22 this season against that pitch with a double and a homer.

He also has a four-seam fastball that averages 94 mph, a slider, curveball and changeup.

4. Any love for Altherr?
Aaron Altherr had his first career pinch-hit last night, an RBI single in the 10th inning to put the Phillies up two runs. 

With Howie Kendrick going on the 10-day DL Tuesday, Altherr should have some starting opportunities over the next week. Daniel Nava got the nod in left field Tuesday but look for Altherr to get the start tonight.

Through 13 games Altherr has just 13 at-bats (4 for 13 with a double and a homer). He had a powerful spring and is looking to put a lost 2016 behind him.

Altherr has a future in this organization, either as a starter or fourth outfielder. His defensive ability certainly helps his cause and right now he's probably the Phils' best defensive outfielder. The Phillies have seen too many weak throws from the outfield already this season from Kendrick and Odubel Herrera.

5. This and that
• Tuesday's game was only the second time in the last 11 meetings that the Mets did not homer off the Phillies.

• Phillies starting pitchers have just seven quality starts in their last 23 games against the Mets.

• The Mets' bullpen will get better when closer Jeurys Familia returns Thursday from a 15-game suspension, but New York is going to need to add relief help by the trade deadline to have a real chance of going deep into October. Right now, this bullpen is extremely unimpressive. It's just straight fastball after straight fastball from guys like Addison Reed and Rafael Montero, and Hansel Robles is capable of imploding on any given night. 

The Mets have strong starting pitching but with a leaky bullpen and such a boom-bust offense, it just doesn't feel like a team destined to go far in 2017 ... at least as presently constructed.

Best of MLB: Indians pick up 27th win in last 28 games

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Best of MLB: Indians pick up 27th win in last 28 games

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It's time for the 2017 Cleveland Indians to be introduced to the one and only 1884 Providence Grays.

They share some unlikely history, the two teams, which played a mere 141 years apart, are the only two clubs to have ever won 27 out of 28 games.

The Indians joined the Grays on Thursday when Francisco Lindor's three-run homer led Cleveland to a 4-1 victory and three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Angels.

The Grays ended up winning 28 of 29, leaving the Indians one game shy of matching the record (see full recap).

Cubs rally in 9th, beat Brewers to open big series
MILWAUKEE -- Javier Baez grounded a tying single with two outs in the ninth inning, Kris Bryant hit a two-run homer in the 10th and the Chicago Cubs widened their NL Central lead over Milwaukee, beating the Brewers 5-3 Thursday night.

The Cubs now are 4 1/2 games ahead of the Brewers after winning the opener of a four-game series.

Milwaukee was in position to win it in the bottom of the ninth, loading the bases with one out. But Wade Davis (4-1) struck out Domingo Santana and then, after falling behind 3-1 in the count to Orlando Arcia, came back to retire him on an easy comebacker on a full-count pitch.

The Cubs trailed 3-2 when Ian Happ led off the ninth by hitting a grounder that first baseman Neil Walker fielded wide of the bag. Reliever Jeremy Jeffress covered first and Happ was called safe in a close play, a ruling upheld on replay (see full recap).

Twins rout Tigers, lead AL wild card by 2½ games
DETROIT -- With a postseason berth tantalizingly close, the Minnesota Twins snapped out of their mini-slump in emphatic fashion.

Joe Mauer and Jorge Polanco had three hits each, and the Twins extended their lead for the American League's second wild card by beating the Detroit Tigers 12-1 on Thursday night. Minnesota is 2 games ahead of the Angels in the race for the AL's final postseason spot. Los Angeles lost earlier in the day to Cleveland .

The Twins had lost five of six coming into the night, including a three-game sweep at the hands of the New York Yankees, but they routed a depleted Detroit team that is 4-17 in September after trading Justin Verlander and Justin Upton.

"As a whole in this season, it's been pretty impressive," Minnesota manager Paul Molitor said. "Staying away from the long losing streaks, coming back from some tough losses and some tough stretches and getting back to playing winning baseball, for the most part,” (see full recap).

Fowler delivers again as Cardinals beat Reds
CINCINNATI -- The St. Louis Cardinals rinsed the bad taste of being swept by the Chicago Cubs the best way they could -- sweeping the Cincinnati Reds.

Dexter Fowler delivered again, hitting two doubles and a single as St. Louis overcame Scott Schebler's two home runs to beat the Reds 8-5 Thursday night.

The Cardinals began the day 2 games behind Colorado for the second NL wild-card spot and five games behind the Central-leading Cubs.

Fowler drove in two runs. He went 7 for 13 with two home runs and six RBIs in the three-game series (see full recap).

Despite series finale loss to Dodgers, Phillies show they can 'compete with the best teams in the league'

Despite series finale loss to Dodgers, Phillies show they can 'compete with the best teams in the league'

BOX SCORE

In the end, things reverted to form: The Dodgers won and the Phillies lost.

The Dodgers are headed to the playoffs, the Phillies to who-knows-where.

Los Angeles scored twice in the seventh inning Thursday afternoon to beat the Phils, 5-4, and salvage the finale of a four-game series (see observations).

The Dodgers, the majors’ best team at 97-56, lowered their magic number to one for clinching a fifth straight NL West championship. The Phils, baseball’s second-worst team at 61-92, were left with a lovely parting gift: hope.

“I think it’s a good lesson,” J.P. Crawford, the rookie shortstop-turned-third baseman, said of the series as a whole. “It showed us, or showed me, we can compete with the best teams in the league. Just can’t wait to see what next year has in store for us.”

Crawford, the 16th overall pick in 2013, drew three walks in four plate appearances and fielded eight chances flawlessly, at least four of which could be described as moderately difficult.

In addition, Mark Leiter Jr. pitched six strong innings, Rhys Hoskins did another Rhys Hoskins thing — i.e., hit a two-run double in the fifth — and Nick Williams launched a two-run homer.

So it was that the Phillies finished the homestand with a 7-3 record. They have won eight of their last 12, and are 32-34 since the All-Star break, after going 29-58 beforehand.

There are those who question how much it means for an also-ran to excel in September, when the pressure is off. It would appear that Phillies manager Pete Mackanin is not among those people. He mentioned in particular how valuable it is for his young relievers to face teams in the thick of the race.

“To get this kind of experience is worth a lot,” he said. “It’s a big part of this year.”

One of those relievers, Ricardo Pinto, faltered Thursday, allowing those two seventh-inning runs to take the loss. But Leiter, who had pitched to a 9.39 ERA in three previous September starts, allowed just one earned run on five hits over his six innings of work. He struck out three and walked one.

So it’s one for his résumé going forward. And he said a strong finish to the season — the Phils have nine games left — is “important for everybody.”

“I don't know if it's more important for us than other teams,” he said, “but you want to finish strong and start strong. Those are the goals. That's baseball. You're going to have some ups and downs, and to take a series is a good thing.”

Crawford, called up from Triple A Lehigh Valley on Sept. 5, hit .200 without a walk in his first six major-league games. In his last nine, he is slashing .296/.474/.481, with 10 walks and seven strikeouts in 38 plate appearances.

“Just a matter of getting my feet settled down,” he said, “and just being comfortable in the box.”

“It’s good to see,” Mackanin said. “He was advertised as someone who controls the strike zone and he’s proven that he can do that. Walk’s as good as a hit — the old saying. He keeps innings alive and he doesn’t expand the strike zone, he makes the pitcher get him out and he’ll take a walk, which is important.”

Speaking generally about such an approach (and not about Crawford in particular), Mackanin had only one small reservation.

“One of the problems with a guy who walks too often is you’d like him to be a little more aggressive at times,” he said, “but in general it’s good to see.”

Crawford made his eighth start at third base, and while he doesn’t possess the power bat normally required of someone who plays the position, he certainly looks like he can hold his own with the glove.

“There’s not really much transition,” he said. “I’m just going over there, reacting, catching the ball, throwing the ball.”

If nothing else, he gives the Phillies a possible alternative to Maikel Franco, who has struggled all year.

And if nothing else, the team as a whole has shown there is some reason for hope.