The count was full in a tense moment during Sunday's 2-1 Phillies win, and Vince Velasquez did not waver. Andrew Knapp, his rookie catcher, wanted a slider. They had fed Sean Rodriguez, a veteran Braves hitter, a diet of fastballs and curveballs. The tying run was on second base, but a base was open. Velasquez loves his fastball. It is a powerful pitch. Rodriguez probably expected one.
So Knapp thought slider.
"Let's throw it," Knapp said. "It's a harder pitch,○ so it comes out looking like a fastball."
It was supposed to break down and away. It did not. It floated high, above the plate, and maybe it looked like a fastball. Rodriguez whiffed. Velasquez celebrated. He had thrown seven scoreless innings for the first time since April 14, 2016 — the day he had 16 strikeouts against the Padres and established impossible expectations.
His most important pitch Sunday did not go where he wanted it. But he had a plan, and baseball is weird.
"I mean," Knapp said, "it worked."
The Phillies won it Sunday on a Freddy Galvis game-winning single with the bases loaded. His teammates ripped his jersey from his body to mark the occasion. The Phillies captured two walk-off wins in less than 24 hours and have won four straight games.
But it has been quite some time since they felt this good about Velasquez, a pitcher with a golden right arm but inconsistent results.
"You've just got to bear down sometimes," Velasquez said. "I've been struggling with situations like that before."
His manager noticed.
"Vinny really showed a lot of poise on the mound," Pete Mackanin said. "That's the best I've seen him look, as far as mound presence is concerned. That was really a good step forward for him."
Velasquez fired 108 pitches and 73 of them were strikes. He had not thrown that many strikes in a game since his 16-strikeout performance. This was his 37th start with the Phillies and just the fifth time he reached seven innings.
His ERA this season is 4.91. He missed six weeks with an elbow injury, and it will be difficult for Velasquez to eclipse the 131 innings he threw in 2016. His future may lie in the bullpen. Still, the Phillies will continue to start him every fifth day with the hopes of seeing progress like he displayed Sunday.
He looked more like a pitcher and not a thrower.
Velasquez used his fastball 56 percent of the time, a lower rate than in previous starts. He had the confidence to often start hitters with a first-pitch curveball. Two of his six strikeouts were on the slider. He mixed in a changeup that helped fool lefthanded hitters. He will never stray too far from his fastball because it is so good when placed in the right spots, but a little diversification could improve it even more.
Afterward, Velasquez spoke like a pitcher who had undergone a recent enlightenment.
"I can't be a thrower anymore," Velasquez said. "You use velocity and guys are going to end up timing your stuff. It's just a matter of setting them up and messing with their timing. The secondary pitches are very useful. If I don't have that in the bag, who knows, the outcome could have possibly changed."
The Phillies scored just once against knuckleballer R.A. Dickey despite his four wild pitches and two passed balls by Atlanta catcher Kurt Suzuki. That kept the game tight. Velasquez allowed two singles to begin the seventh inning. The runners advanced on a deep fly out to center.
Then Velasquez found another gear.
"When he's down in the zone, he doesn't have to have the electric, 97-mph fastball," Knapp said. "Be below the knees and it's good enough. You'll get seven innings."
"He was in control today," said Galvis, who aided Velasquez with three sharp defensive plays at shortstop. "He was in his plan, doing what he was supposed to do. He was keeping the breaking ball down."