ATLANTA – Phillies manager Gabe Kapler issued a challenge Wednesday to Vince Velasquez, a few hours before the righthander would pitch the first six innings of a 7-3 loss to the Braves. He wanted Velasquez to pitch with intensity and fervor. He wanted him to challenge hitters with confidence.
“I’m going to attack with my fastball. I’m going to attack with my secondary pitches. And when I’m in the zone with them, I’m going to still be on the gas pedal,” Kapler said of the approach Velasquez needed. “It’s this thing that you want to throw a strike, so you’re a little bit finer, a little bit softer, with your delivery.
“No. With Vinnie, its about being bold with your delivery, being bold with your fastball, being bold with your secondary pitches. Then, when you land them in the zone, they’re a little bit nastier.”
If there is one thing that Velasquez does not lack, it is intensity. But sometimes the pitcher fails to properly channel that mindset on the mound, seeming to show too much caution to opponents and falling into deep counts, racking up high pitch totals.
Wednesday night’s outing offered some promise. He attacked with his fastball — which touched 96 mph in his final inning — and used it for 60 percent of his pitches and five of his seven strikeouts. He utilized a sharp slider and countered with a troubled curveball.
But Atlanta third baseman Ryan Flaherty, who failed to make the Phillies in spring training, jacked a three-run homer in the fifth, as he sat on Velasquez’ first-pitch fastball.
It was a blip on a night that showed some promise and displayed why the Phillies are willing to see whether Velasquez can develop the mindset his manager challenges him to have. Velasquez has a 2.41 ERA in his last three starts, with 20 strikeouts and three walks over 18 2/3 innings. He attacked.
“I think it’s just the mindset that you have to have,” Velasquez said. “I changed my approach and am just attacking hitters. That was one of the biggest things, going after guys and attacking the zone and utilizing all of my pitches.
“My secondary pitches were working pretty well and [I was] putting guys away with them. I got four punches with the slider, and you don’t see that very often. It’s a different mindset, a different plan of attack.”
The Phillies dropped two of three at SunTrust Park but still secured their first winning road trip (4-2) since 2016. The Phillies return home Thursday winners of nine of their last 12.
A series-winning victory seemed within reach when the Phillies trailed by two runs in the eighth, but Kapler elected to keep lefthander Hoby Milner in against righthanded hitters after facing two lefties. It was a curious move, because Kapler had used Milner almost exclusively against lefthanded hitters. Milner gave up three runs, and the game was out of reach.
“That was the right time to save our bullpen and put them in a good position to succeed going forward,” Kapler said.
The Phillies were on the verge of a rally in the seventh, when Maikel Franco walked and Andrew Knapp reached on an error, putting runners on first and third with no outs. Carlos Santana, out of the lineup for the first time this season, pinch hit and grounded into a double play, and J.P. Crawford struck out.
Franco scored on the double play but the inning fell short of its potential.
Rhys Hoskins walked to start the ninth and scored on a double by Aaron Altherr, but that’s as close as the Phillies got.
Edubray Ramos, in relief of Velasquez, gave up a homer to Dansby Swanson, the leadoff batter in the bottom of the seventh. It was the righthander’s first earned run of the season.
The Phillies’ first run came in the fifth, when Velasquez ripped Brandon McCarthy’s curveball up the middle to drive in Knapp. McCarthy threw his opposing pitcher five pitches; three were breaking balls. McCarthy failed to attack, and Velasquez made him pay.
Velasquez moved to second on the throw home and looked into the Phillies dugout. His teammates were cheering, and Velasquez gestured back. Even at bat, Velasquez had attacked. There was some promise.
“All night long, he was attacking hitters,” Kapler said. “That was why we had the confidence to send him out for the sixth. He was pretty aggressive with all of his pitches, which is exactly what we asked him to do. He had that fastball working up to 97 [mph] at times.
“He really looked in complete control of the game. We thought he did a good job battling despite giving up the three-run homer.”