Poor defense has dogged the Phillies all season. Last night, it might have slayed them.
With flyball pitcher Vince Velasquez on the mound for the opener of a last-gasp series against the Braves, manager Gabe Kapler made the calculated decision to start his best defensive outfield. That meant Aaron Altherr in left field, with Rhys Hoskins moving to first base and Carlos Santana shifting to third. Sure enough, all three were involved in questionable plays that led to an 8-3 loss, one that leaves the Phillies 6 1/2 games behind the Braves with 10 games to play.
"In a perfect world, we have our best outfield defense, our best infield defense, and our best offense," Kapler said. "That's not how our roster is constructed. We have to sometimes give up something to gain an advantage."
And sometimes, no matter what the Phillies do, they simply aren't good enough.
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Vince Velasquez will always go as far as his fastball carries him. But after allowing a pair of two-strike hits on heaters last Saturday, he wondered aloud if he should have turned to a different pitch to finish off Marlins hitters Austin Dean and J.T. Riddle.
Turns out, there was a good reason he leaned on his fastball.
Over his last few starts, Velasquez has been asked to "really step on the gas," as Kapler put it yesterday, and not worry as much about pacing himself to go deep into the game. With 16 relievers in the bullpen and Velasquez having eclipsed his career high for innings pitched in a major-league season, the Phillies believe this is the best way to maximize his impact on the games he starts.
Velasquez did as he was told last night. He opened the game with five consecutive fastballs — none registering less than 95 mph on the SunTrust Park scoreboard — to Braves rookie Ronald Acuna Jr. Thirteen of his first 19 pitches, and 31 of his 57 pitches overall, were heaters.
And although Velasquez yielded three runs on five hits and lasted only three innings, his line might have looked much different if he'd gotten help from his defense, particularly in the first inning when out-of-position Santana couldn't knock down a Freddie Freeman one-hopper and first baseman Hoskins made a questionable decision to concede a run on a double play.
It also reintroduces a familiar narrative about whether Velasquez's best role going forward is as a hard-throwing reliever.
Entering last night, he had gone to his four-seam fastball 54.2 percent of the time, the 16th-highest rate among 134 starters who have thrown at least 1,500 pitches, and has been mostly effective at elevating it to get swings and misses. Kapler said Velasquez still "has some work to do" on gaining confidence in his other pitches.
But Kapler also believes the righthander can use his slider and curveball more than 15 percent of the time apiece and sees potential in a change-up that he uses at only a 3.7 percent rate. And Velasquez was effective as a starter for much of the season. In 15 starts from May 5 through Aug. 3, he posted a 3.18 ERA.
"The curveball has enough shape, enough bite, enough velocity to be a real pitch. So does the change-up," Kapler said. "The more consistent it becomes, you're like, 'This dude has three good pitches like [Aaron] Nola.'"
In that case, there would be no question that Velasquez belongs in the starting rotation.
For weeks, the Phillies pointed to these four games in Atlanta as a chance to turn the NL East race in their favor. So, after a largely self-inflicted dud in the series opener, Hoskins summed it all up perfectly. "Disappointing," he said, "is the word."
Santana started at third base for the eighth time in 14 games. Don't read too much into it, though, or presume that the Phillies are considering Santana as a full-time third baseman next year. There are multiple factors that have led him to the hot corner, and they don't all have to do with him.
Tonight: Nick Pivetta makes the biggest start of his career, 7:35 p.m.
Tomorrow: Jake Arrieta vs. Braves righty Mike Foltynewicz, 1:05 p.m.
Sunday: Aaron Nola starts the series finale in Atlanta, 1:35 p.m.
Monday: Phillies begin final road series of the season in Colorado, 8:40 p.m.
It hardly seemed like a big deal when Jorge Alfaro struck out on three pitches for the second out of the sixth inning last night. After all, it wasn't anything we hadn't seen before. The rookie catcher has whiffed in 40.1 percent of his at-bats (136 of 339).
But Alfaro's strikeout was the 1,418th by a Phillies hitter this season, breaking a club record that was set last year.
Kapler maintains that strikeouts aren't a concern, that they are merely a product of working deep counts. And when the bases are empty, it's true that a strikeout is nearly the same as any other out. Still, the only teams with more strikeouts than the Phillies are the White Sox (1,485) and Padres (1,430), neither of whom have offenses worth emulating.
Answer: Thanks, Nick, for the question. Probably should've gotten to this a few days ago while the Mets were still in town (and before the Phillies took a series from them), but it brings to mind a larger point that I think is worth discussing. The Phillies have struggled against the entire division, not only the Mets. They are 32-38 in NL East games (46-36 vs. everyone else) and have a losing record against every division rival save the Marlins. Compare that to the Braves, who are 44-23 within the NL East and 41-45 against the rest of baseball, and it accounts for the gap in the standings.