In his second start ever for the Phillies, the ninth start of his major-league career, Vince Velasquez racked up 16 strikeouts in a three-hit shutout of the San Diego Padres.

It was a peek at his potential.

But it was also way back on April 14, 2016. And while nobody expected Velasquez to maintain that standard of dominance, the Phillies waited much of the last three years for him to simply string together enough quality starts to be counted on as a reliable member of the starting rotation. At times, they wondered if he ever would.

The waiting and wondering are over.

Velasquez flummoxed the Miami Marlins on Friday night at jam-packed Citizens Bank Park, blanking them for 6 1/3 innings of a 5-1 victory that kept the Phillies in first place by a half-game over the Atlanta Braves. He pounded the zone with 66 strikes out of 85 pitches, fanned seven batters and walked only one. He gave up two hits, none until the fifth inning.

And this wasn't some isolated gem, either. For nearly two months, Velasquez has quietly pitched as well as almost any starter in baseball. In eight starts since June 9, he has a 2.14 ERA, best among National League starters and fourth-best in baseball during that span behind only Boston's Chris Sale (0.69), Cleveland's Trevor Bauer (2.00) and Tampa Bay's Blake Snell (2.11).

"It seems like everything's kind of falling into place now," Velasquez said. "I'm still learning as I go. I'm still going with the flow. I would say there's still a lot of room to work with here."

Velasquez said "it was in the back of my mind" that he could pitch this consistently, even last season when he struggled to a 5.14 ERA. Surely, this is exactly what the Phillies always envisioned from the 26-year-old righthander when they acquired him from the Houston Astros for closer Ken Giles after the 2015 season in one of the first trades made by general manager Matt Klentak.

After an emotional pregame ceremony in which former center fielder Shane Victorino retired from playing as a member of the Phillies, Velasquez came out throwing heat. He tore through the Marlins' order on eight pitches in the first inning and nine in the second, then struck out the side on 13 pitches in the third, leaning on the mid-90s fastball that everyone has always known he possesses.

When it came time to face the lineup a second time, though, he began to mix in his curveball and was equally effective. It was another sign that Velasquez is developing into a trustworthy starter.

"He can be one of the best pitchers in the big leagues if he keeps doing what he's doing," catcher Jorge Alfaro said. "It's really fun being behind the plate when he comes to you and lets you know what he wants to do and he's really focused on every hitter. What else can I tell you? It's really fun to catch."

But Velasquez pitched without any margin for error, not that he needed it. When he left the game, the Phillies led, 1-0, on a rally started by none other than Velasquez himself. He doubled to lead off the third inning, hustled to third base on Cesar Hernandez's flyout and scored on a single by Rhys Hoskins.

"Sometimes you've got to help yourself out," Velasquez said. "I was a shortstop [in high school], so I'm not afraid to swing it. That slide into second base was a little bit too extreme, but I was feeling myself there."

The Phillies tacked on a run in the seventh inning and broke open the game with three in the eighth. In between, Seranthony Dominguez recorded an enormous inning-ending strikeout of Marlins all-star catcher J.T. Realmuto with runners on the corners in the eighth.

But this game was about Velasquez, who could have completed the seventh inning and maybe even started the eighth if the Phillies weren't taking such care to monitor his workload. Like many of their young pitchers, Velasquez is on pace to pitch more innings in the majors than ever before in his career. And it has become clear how much they will need him in September and beyond.

"I think at this point he's proven that he's not just capable but thriving," Kapler said. "The last month has been really impressive. He has proven over the course of the last month that he's a force to be reckoned with."