Vince Velasquez, Phillies stomach tough loss to Jay Bruce, Mets

Vince Velasquez, Phillies stomach tough loss to Jay Bruce, Mets

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NEW YORK -- Jay Bruce and Bryce Harper are not the same guy. 

Or maybe they are.

On Sunday, the Phillies were beaten up by Harper, who smashed a two-run home run and a three-run home run to lift the Washington Nationals to victory.

Three nights later, and a few hours up I-95, Bruce did the same thing Wednesday. He clubbed a three-run homer and a two-run homer to account for all of the New York Mets' runs in a 5-4 win over the Phillies (see Instant Replay).

The Phillies' fourth loss in five games this season to the Mets was tough to swallow for a few reasons.

First, the Phillies continued to show late-inning moxie. They tied the game with a run in the eighth inning on a double by Aaron Altherr, a ground out by Odubel Herrera and a two-out hit by Michael Saunders. It was the sixth run that they have scored in the eighth inning of the last four games. Three times they've tied the game and once they've taken the lead.

The tie didn't last long as Edubray Ramos gave up a leadoff single to Yoenis Cespedes in the eighth. That was followed by Bruce's killer two-run homer on a 94-mph fastball.

The second reason this one was tough to swallow was that the Phils' offense -- or lack of -- is giving this club no margin for error. Maikel Franco, the team's No. 4 hitter, and Tommy Joseph, the No. 6 hitter, both went hitless in four at-bats. They are among three regulars (along with Cameron Rupp) hitting under .200.

Franco is 0 for his last 21. He did have an RBI ground out early in the game, but left five runners on base. He is hitting .148 and could be in line for a night off Thursday with hard-throwing Noah Syndergaard on the mound for the Mets in the series finale.

"We'd like to score more runs," manager Pete Mackanin lamented.

The final reason that this loss was tough to swallow was that the Phils got a pretty good start from Vince Velasquez, the hard-throwing, electric-armed right-hander who could really help this rebuild if he can harness his potential and develop into a consistent contributor.

"Vinny really pitched well for the first five innings," Mackanin said. "He had them off balance. He was changing speeds. Great changeup. Hitting locations. It looked like he was cruising."

He was cruising.

Until the sixth inning.

Vinny Velo turned in 1-2-3 innings in the third, fourth and fifth innings. He took a shutout into the sixth inning and that's where the walls came tumbling down. He allowed four hits and a walk in the inning and the Mets took the lead on Bruce's first homer of the night, a three-run shot to right with two outs. Three of the hits and the walk that Velasquez gave up in that sixth inning came with two outs, so he was begging for trouble, and, of course, he found it when he hung a first-pitch changeup to Bruce. Before Bruce came to the plate, Velasquez allowed a two-out single to Asdrubal Cabrera and a walk to Yoenis Cespedes.

"Coming right out of the gate, I had full control of everything," said Velasquez, who was tagged for five hits and five runs in five innings against the Mets in his previous start. "I felt more relaxed. Bruce is just a mistake hitter. You make one mistake and he can turn it around. I know not to do that again. That could've been eliminated if I got out Cabrera or could have gotten out Cespedes without walking him. Again, that's on my part."

Velasquez did take some positives from the outing.

"I made some adjustments," he said. "I'm not happy with the outcome, but I'm kind of happy with my performance.

"It was just a matter of being in control, not trying to do too much, not trying to be a powerful pitcher, just being in control of my situation. I tried to get ahead of the guys and put them away. I got some groundballs on two-seamers. There were a lot of hard-hit balls that were outs, too. But, again, I'm pretty comfortable with the performance. There's more work to be done. I'm not going to get complacent."

Bruce has six home runs on the season and four are against the Phillies. He has hit safely in his last 10 games against the Phils and is hitting .471 (16 for 34) with six homers and 15 RBIs in those games.

Since the start of the 2015 season, the Mets have out-homered the Phils 81-35.

Aaron Nola pitches on Thursday night.

He'd be wise to keep the ball down.

Aaron Nola's best start of the season has Phillies confident he's locking in

Aaron Nola's best start of the season has Phillies confident he's locking in

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When Aaron Nola pitches like he did Thursday, there aren't too many teams capable of beating him.

Nola was locked in against the Cardinals in the Phillies' 5-1 win, allowing just one run on four hits over 7 1/3 innings with a season-high eight strikeouts (see Instant Replay). His first seven innings were scoreless and his pitch count was at just 89, so he had the chance for his first-ever complete game and the Phillies' first of the season.

But Paul DeJong greeted Nola in the eighth with a solo homer, and after a one-out walk to Matt Carpenter, Nola's day was done. He left to a loud ovation from Phillies fans who have been waiting a long time to see this guy again.

"Well that's the Nola we all have come to know and love," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He was outstanding today. ... He was painting on both sides of the plate. Real good curveball. Threw a lot of good changeups. I think he got tired in that eighth inning, but it was great to see him rebound from the struggles he's been going through."

Nola had elite command of his two-seam fastball and curveball on this day. Five of his eight strikeouts were looking as he continuously froze Cardinals hitters with two-seamers that started outside and darted back over the outside corner. Everything was low in the zone. The curveball was sharp and biting with late life and St. Louis' hitters kept swinging over top of it.

This was the Nola worth drafting in the first round. This was the Nola who can legitimately be a top-of-the-rotation arm.

"I know what I'm capable of and I know what I can do and today was me," Nola said. "I felt confident in all my pitches today and commanding all my pitches when I wanted to. It was all good in those areas.

"I always try to visualize [success]. I know what I'm capable of doing and what pitches I can command, it's just those days where you feel really good about it and you're really confident about executing to both sides of the plate."

Last year during spring training, Mackanin compared Nola's skill set to that of a pitcher he managed in 1985 in the Class A Midwest League. That pitcher was Greg Maddux. 

"I'll just say this and I probably shouldn't, but I'm just gonna say it: Aaron Nola reminds me a bit of [Maddux]," Mackanin said last February.

"He shows no fear, he's very confident in his abilities and he has the uncanny ability to locate his fastball down in the zone on both sides of the plate. And he really believes in himself."

On Thursday, Nola fit every piece of that description. And just like Nick Pivetta built confidence with his nine-strikeout performance last week against the Red Sox that carried over into a 10-K night against the Cardinals (see story), this has a chance to be a real building block for Nola.

Throwing first-pitch strikes to 18 of 24 hitters will get you a long way.

"He got ahead of almost every hitter I guarantee you, he was strike one," catcher Cameron Rupp said.  

"And when you do that, that opens up so many doors with your pitch sequence, being able to pitch and get in on guys, maybe throw a purpose pitch for a ball, maybe they swing and you're 0-2 and that opens up the outer half even bigger. He threw strikes, he pounded the zone, and when you do that, you're going to have so much success. 

"That's what he did his first year-and-a-half up here. He got away from locating his pitches and the injuries, I'm sure, didn't help, but he attacked the zone and did a great job for us. ... When you do that, the sky is the limit, and he showed that today."

Conflicting messages, real concern over usage restrictions for Pat Neshek

Conflicting messages, real concern over usage restrictions for Pat Neshek

Phillies reliever Pat Neshek is having a tremendous, All-Star season, but the restrictions on his usage have become a real concern.

Neshek, who has a 0.63 ERA and 30 scoreless appearances out of 31, induced an inning-ending double play Thursday to get the Phillies to the ninth with a two-run lead. He threw just five pitches in the 5-1 win (see Instant Replay).

But even if the Phillies didn't tack on two insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth, Neshek was not going back out for a save situation in the ninth, Mackanin said.

"I asked him to go back out," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He said he would rather not, he didn't feel like he had it. 

"I would have liked to have sent him back out, obviously, because he's been so effective. However, we've got a good thing going there and if he can only pitch one inning for us, I'll take it. 

"He's been that good and I don't want to disrupt that. That's one area that I don't have to worry about. So, I did ask if he could go back out, he just thought it was better that he didn't."

Moments later, Neshek said he was not asked to go back out for the ninth.

It's the second straight day there have been conflicting messages when it comes to Neshek's availability. Wednesday night, when the Phillies blew a five-run lead and allowed runs in both the eighth and ninth innings as Neshek stayed in the bullpen, Mackanin said that Neshek had told him earlier he was unavailable. But then Neshek said that he was the one told he'd have the day off.

Whichever order of operations has actually occurred the last two games, these restrictions on Neshek's usage are affecting the Phillies late in games and they're sure to have an impact on his trade value as well.

The trade value is the more important thing here long-term because the Phillies are 25 games under .500. Neshek and Howie Kendrick are their two best trade assets, but if you're a contending team, why give up anything of substance for a half-season of Neshek if you don't even know if you can send him out two games in a row?

"He gave me the off day when I showed up," Neshek said Thursday about the middle game of the series. "I don’t know. You guys (the media) are making a big deal out of it."

Did he feel better Thursday?

"Yeah," he said. "I went out there and got the double play.

"We’ve been used a lot this week. I was kind of hoping that I might get a day today. But I understand the state of the bullpen. You have to suck it up and go out there."

Neshek has been used five times in the last seven days, so he does have a point, he has been used a lot. That's the byproduct of being your team's most reliable reliever.

At this stage, Neshek is a safe bet to be the Phillies' All-Star representative, especially because he'd serve an actual purpose in the All-Star Game as a right-handed specialist capable of retiring the best of the best.

"It could happen," he said. "There’s a couple other guys. It’s going to come down to who Joe Maddon wants for his bench. Is it going to be an extra pitcher? Is it going to be an extra hitter? They usually don’t stick with middle relief guys. Yeah, I have the numbers. But the All-Star Game is kind of a hairy thing if you’re not the star guy, if you’re not the save guy. It’s going to come down to do we need a pitcher or do we need a hitter.

"It’s really tough to make it as a middle reliever. It’s hard to get excited about anything that hasn’t happened yet."