It was one day, 18 innings spread over nine hours, barely an eye-blink in a hectic stretch of the unrelenting baseball schedule. But it crystallized, once and for all, what the Phillies need most between now and the end of the month.
It's as glaring as the midday sun that got in second baseman Cesar Hernandez's eyes and prevented him from catching a pop-up in the first game of a doubleheader Sunday. In splitting the day-night twinbill with the National League-worst San Diego Padres, the Phillies got a total of two hits with runners in scoring position. They hit a handful of balls hard, three of which were home runs, two by Rhys Hoskins. Somehow they scored enough runs to win another series, and really, winning series is the only thing that matters now.
But credit for the Phillies' 5-0 victory in the nightcap, which followed a 10-2 drubbing by the Padres in the matinee opener, was due almost entirely to the pitching of Vince Velasquez. The righthander didn't allow a hit until the sixth inning, finished seven innings for the first time since July 30, 2017, and lowered his ERA to 2.36 in his last half-dozen starts.
The offense? Mostly an innocent bystander.
"Rather than waiting for a big inning, we're always working for a big inning," said Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, whose young lineup often has to work extra hard because of the additional middle-of-the-order bopper that it still lacks. "One of the things I've been talking to some of our guys about is, judge your at-bat by if you made the pitcher work, were you a tough out, rather than did you get a hit or did you hit a home run."
The Phillies went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position and left 11 on base in the opener. Through six innings of the second game, they mustered one run against Padres righthander Luis Perdomo, who entered with a 7.55 ERA. Odubel Herrera's golf shot of a solo homer on a pitch off his shoetops in the fourth inning was the extent of the cushion Velasquez was given.
No wonder Hoskins tossed his bat with a little extra zeal after belting a three-run homer into the second deck in left field in the seventh inning to punctuate a four-run outburst that was 16 innings in the making.
"It was a big win," Hoskins said. "Vinny did what he needed to do for us. But to get some insurance runs late in the game, kind of deflate their tires a bit with a big hit, yeah, it was good. We needed a win today, another series win."
The Phillies keep winning series mostly because their starting pitching has been superb. Aaron Nola has blossomed into an ace, and although Jake Arrieta no longer rates as such, he's a dependable veteran starter. The more Velasquez pitches, the more he proves he deserves to stay in the rotation.
Velasquez is the first Phillies pitcher since Steve Carlton in 1979 to take a no-hit bid into the sixth inning in at least three starts in the same season. A two-hitter over seven innings against the Padres represented Velasquez's best start of the season.
The secret to his success: a refined routine.
"We're critiquing it every day," Velasquez said. "Whether it's eating cereal in the morning or having a solid meal the night before, you're pretty much figuring yourself out every day. It's a learning experience. I think it's creating that routine that I've found and I'm utilizing it every day."
Of the 15 balls that the Padres put in play against starter Nick Pivetta in the early game, eight went for hits. They scored three runs in the first inning, had a 4-1 lead through three, and tacked on three unearned runs in the sixth against Pivetta and reliever Edubray Ramos, who exited with a strained patella tendon in his left knee and was placed on the disabled list.
The Padres were leading, 4-2, with one out in the sixth inning when Ramos got Christian Villanueva to hit a pop-up to shallow right field. Hernandez camped under the ball only to lose it in the sun. He wasn't wearing sunglasses, a decision that Kapler called "a personal preference."
"We don't ask guys or force guys to wear sunglasses," Kapler said. "Some guys are good at shielding the sun. In this particular situation, if he needs sunglasses to field that ball then he should have sunglasses. But he's a veteran infielder who knows how to play a ball in the sun. His decision was to not have sunglasses on."
On Monday, Manny Machado will walk through Citizens Bank Park's gates, but his stay will be brief. And while the Los Angeles Dodgers' new shortstop — and the object of the Phillies' desire — was the only true difference-making hitter available before the July 31 trade deadline, there are others who would help lengthen the lineup.
If the Phillies were merely in the wild-card race, they might be more inclined to sit tight and see if Franco, Kingery, and their other young hitters continue to develop. But they have a chance to win the NL East, which should increase their desire to take a flier on Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, Minnesota Twins infielder Eduardo Escobar or another hitter who can give greater margin for error to pitchers who have earned it.
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