ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Jorge Alfaro had already struck out twice on Friday night when he fell into another two-strike count with two outs in the ninth inning of an eventual 2-1 win over the Rays. Scott Kingery stood at second base and his clutch double looked ready to be wasted. Alfaro was a whiff away from his 16th strikeout of the season.
Rays closer Alex Colome geared up another cutter, the pitch he already watched Alfaro twice swing past. But Alfaro refused to miss it a third time. He laced Colome's cutter, firing a ground ball through the left side of the infield, and sent Kingery home for the winning run as the Phillies won their fourth straight game.
It was the type of at-bat Alfaro needed, a down-to-his last strike battle in a key spot. The catcher has shown promise during the first weeks of the season. But he has also had his challenges. It is no secret that he is prone to strikeouts. But the Phillies are willing to work through his growing pains, believing that there is untapped potential in his bat. Friday offered a glimpse.
"I just didn't want to let them down. I wanted to battle," Alfaro said. "I had the opportunity to help the guys. I want to contribute. My first two at-bats were strikeouts and that was an opportunity to get some revenge."
"It's one of those moments as a hitter where you dig your spikes in and say, 'I am not going to get beat. I'm going to fight,'" manager Gabe Kapler said.
Alfaro's hit was too late to give Vince Velasquez a win as the righthander settled for a no-decision after an excellent night. He allowed just one run before being lifted after recording two outs in the seventh inning. Velasquez threw 93 pitches, struck out seven, walked one, and allowed just four hits. He looked like a pitcher and not simply a thrower.
Velasquez threw 14 change-ups after throwing just one over his previous two starts. He relied on his fastball for just 51 percent of his pitches, Velasquez' lowest rate since 2016. The attack worked as Velasquez used his change-up for four swinging strikes and used off-speed pitches for his first three strikeouts. He did not just unleash fastball after fastball. Velasquez pitched with a purpose.
"I just threw it," Velasquez said of his change-up. "I had conviction behind it. It's one of those games where you have to test it out and you end up finding a groove for it and then you keep utilizing it. If it's not broken, don't fix it … I looked at the lineup and thought it was a good pitch to utilize. I just had conviction with my secondary pitchers."
Kapler used four relievers — Luis Garcia, Adam Morgan, Edubray Ramos, and Hector Neris — to record the final seven outs. Garcia inherited a runner on third when he took over for Velasquez. It was a big spot and the righthander came through. He battled Wilson Ramos for eight pitches before inducing a fly ball to end the inning. The four relievers did not allow a hit.
"They came in and shut the door for us," Kapler said. "One guy passed the baton to the next. That was awesome."
J.P. Crawford doubled in the sixth as he recorded a hit for the third straight game after starting the season 1 for 25. Crawford scored two batters later when Carlos Santana dropped a single into shallow right field. The Phillies appeared to have a rally brewing but it was quickly extinguished. Odubel Herrera struck out with runners on first and third and Nick Williams struck out after Rhys Hoskins was walked to load the bases. The Phillies struck out 13 times and have double-digit strikeouts this season in eight of their 12 games.
The patience the Phillies are showing Alfaro is not limited to just his strikeouts. It is also his work behind the plate. The catcher has an electric arm and has shown to be a strong pitch framer. But his defense is not perfect. He had some rough spots on Friday as he dropped a transfer when trying to throw out a runner and failed to block a pitch from Ramos that was ultimately ruled a wild pitch. And just like his strikeouts, it would have been easy for Alfaro to fold after some early struggles. But Alfaro rallied here, too.
C.J. Cron started the ninth by popping up a foul ball against Neris. The hit traveled behind Alfaro, drifting toward the on-deck circle and out of play. The catcher never gave up. He tracked the foul and made the catch, falling into the stands as he secured the out. Minutes earlier, he drove home Kingery for the winning run. Now, he was giving Neris his first out. Alfaro is not perfect, but he is showing potential.