The top of the fourth inning Monday night lasted almost 2 hours and 15 minutes. It began with a Vince Velasquez walk, outlasted a punishing thunderstorm, and devolved into one team bullying another that is 30 games behind them in the standings.
Citizens Bank Park emptied during the interminable inning of a 13-4 Phillies loss to the Astros. The best team in the American League, Houston, is a mismatch for the worst team in the National League. The numbers say that. But Velasquez, armed with a powerful fastball and the motivation to beat the club that drafted him, had a chance to at least make it interesting.
He could not.
“They were hunting fastballs,” Velasquez said. “They’re a good fastball-hitting team.”
Velasquez, an emotional pitcher, opposed old friends he expected to join when Houston experienced its resurgence. Instead, he became a trade chip used to acquire closer Ken Giles, and was thrust into another rebuilding process here. He allowed four runs Monday and recorded nine outs on 65 pitches before the rain delay. Just 38 of those pitches were strikes.
He has a 5.49 ERA in 12 starts this season.
When asked how he thought Velasquez looked, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin offered a curt assessment.
“He gave up two home runs, six hits in three innings,” Mackanin said.
Velasquez walked Brian McCann on five pitches to start the fourth inning. He jumped ahead, 0-2, to Alex Bregman. That is when dark clouds hovered above the ballpark and a menacing wind whipped through South Philadelphia. That prompted the umpires to signal a delay.
It lasted 1 hour, 52 minutes. Velasquez’s night was over. Ricardo Pinto relieved him. The Venezuelan righthander threw Bregman a two-strike fastball, which landed in the left-field gap for a double. The rout — fueled by three singles, two walks and a catcher’s interference — was initiated.
The rest of the night was a brand of perfunctory baseball, a chance to experiment. Cesar Hernandez shifted to shortstop for the first time this season. Catcher Andrew Knapp spent a few innings at first base, the first time in his major-league career he played there. Nick Williams cleared the bases in the seventh inning with his third triple in the last five days.
The Phillies used their three relievers capable of multiple innings — Pinto threw 51 pitches and Hoby Milner used 49 — so they may add a fresh arm Tuesday from triple-A Lehigh Valley. Edubray Ramos, who has a 1.69 ERA in 10 2/3 innings there, is one possibility.
Velasquez, on Monday, dug a hole. McCann and Bregman, two Astros who were not teammates of Velasquez, crushed fastballs for back-to-back homers in the second inning. Jose Altuve, the 5-foot-6 hitting star, doubled to start the third inning and later scored on a single. Altuve reached base all five times he batted Monday.
Afterward, Velasquez lamented his decision to not use his breaking pitches in certain spots.
“I was just to utilize it a little more and slow the bats down a little bit, maybe I would have protected my fastball better,” Velasquez said. “Mistakes. They hammer mistakes. McCann hit that fastball over the middle. I can’t leave it over the middle like that.”
Mackanin just wants better quality from Velasquez, no matter the type of pitch.
“If you don’t locate to a team like this,” Mackanin said, “you’re going to get hurt.”
This marked Velasquez’s second start since missing six weeks with an elbow injury. He attacked Miami’s hitters last week with a steady diet of fastballs. He navigated through six innings with just 79 pitches. That outing was a step in the right direction.
This one, against the most powerful offense in baseball, was less encouraging. It was a test for Velasquez, a pitcher the Phillies’ front office believes can mature into an effective starter. There is much still to learn.
Velasquez pitched 131 innings in 2016, an abbreviated season because of injury and an innings restriction. He has logged 59 innings this season. It is unlikely that he will reach his total from a season ago, raising even more questions about his future role. But those are questions for another night.