Vince Velasquez was in the midst of a crowd-pleasing performance Thursday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park during the Phillies’ 9-3 win over the Colorado Rockies. The 26-year-old righthander with the electric stuff and the erratic resume retired the first two batters of the seventh inning and now he was an out away from getting to the eighth with his bid for a no-hitter intact.
The buzz among the crowd of 22,500 was palpable. They had already been treated to a pregame appearance from Hall of Famer Jim Thome, who later returned as the trigger man behind the Phanatic’s hot dog launcher. And they had also risen in the middle of the game to applaud Chuck Yeager, the 95-year-old former Air Force pilot who 61 years ago was the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound.
It was going to be an awesome day at the ballpark regardless and now a no-hitter by Velasquez was within reach. The problem was it had zero chance of happening. A no-hitter was possible, but it was not going to be pitched entirely by Velasquez. By the time Colorado’s Carlos Gonzalez stepped to the plate with two outs, Velasquez had already thrown 96 pitches. He still needed seven outs and he had only thrown 100 pitches once this season and 17 times in his 59 career starts.
Manager Gabe Kapler admitted that as much as he would have loved to see a little slice of history, he was not going to let Velasquez run his pitch count much beyond 120. Velasquez’s career-high pitch total is 113, which he threw in his second career start for the Phillies when he also registered a career-high 16 strikeouts against San Diego.
“It’s always (about) what do I do to take care of this guy for the long term?” Kapler said. “So as we creep into that 105 to 110-pitch range, we know that a long at-bat can push that to 115 or 120. A really long at-bat could put you in a really uncomfortable spot.”
Kapler appeared uncomfortable after Velasquez walked Gonzalez on five pitches, pushing the pitch total to 101. Tommy Hunter was already up in the bullpen and you got the feeling that the manager would not mind if the no-hit bid ended immediately.
It did four pitches later when Trevor Story cracked an RBI double off the left-field wall. As the loud ovation for Velasquez’s effort subsided, Kapler went to the mound and called in Hunter. The crowd had to settle for a flirtation with history in addition to seeing a couple of historic humans.
They seemed OK with it even after things got a little uncomfortable when Hunter surrendered an RBI single to Gerardo Parra that cut the Phillies’ lead to 3-2. The Phillies responded with four runs in the bottom of the seventh and they were more than pleased with Velasquez, who was coming off a start in which he allowed a career-high 10 runs in 3 2/3 innings against Milwaukee.
“I thought that was as confident as I’ve ever seen him,” Kapler said. “I thought he was easy, his demeanor was easy, he was relaxed and I think that came from his ability to throw strikes inside. I think he was very confident in his fastball inside.”
The manager also gave credit to catcher Andrew Knapp for urging Velasquez to throw his fastball on the inner half of the plate.
“Right from the beginning, Knapp and I were pretty much locked in,” Velasquez said. “That’s a big confidence booster right there when you have a guy who calls a good game and you’re right on pace with him.”
It was the first time Knapp had been behind the plate for a Velasquez start since May 5, which was a one-hit performance over five innings in a victory over Washington. Listening to Kapler, you got the impression the two will be paired again when Velasquez faces St. Louis Tuesday at home.
“That was the best I’ve seen him battle,” Knapp said. “I think his stuff has probably been better in the past. It’s always electric, but for him to go out and to have the poise on the mound to continue to put pitches on that lineup was really cool to watch. That’s a tough lineup.”
Knapp also contributed two of the Phillies’ 13 hits and scored a couple of runs. It was his first two-hit game since April 18. In between that game and Thursday’s victory, the Phillies’ backup catcher went 5-for-44 (.114).
“I feel like I’ve been having much better at-bats of late,” Knapp said. “Obviously it’s a little bit tougher with limited playing time, but I’ve been working in the cage with the fastball machine, so that helps with the velocity you see.”
Knapp would have loved to have caught a no-hitter Thursday, but Velasquez was not going to pitch one. Not by himself at least. Kapler and the Phillies were more than happy with what Velasquez gave them. They’d just love to see it on a much more consistent basis.