One of the Philadelphia Phillies' major problems this season has been the lack of a consistent fifth starter in the starting rotation.
Vince Velasquez opened up the season as the team's fifth starter, going 1-2 with a 3.99 ERA in six starts before he went on the injured list with a right forearm strain. He has the best stuff on the mound of any of the potential candidates for the fifth starter's spot, although it is well documented that he struggles with keeping his pitch count low and going deep into games.
Velasquez's performance on the mound in this six start stretch was not bad, but he once again struggled to go deep into games. He averaged just under five innings per start.
When Velasquez came back from the injured list in late May, he found that he had lost his spot in the starting rotation. He was not pleased with his new role coming out of the bullpen, where he has been at for the most part since coming back from injury.
The Phillies, in the midst of a five-game losing streak and an overall terrible month of June, decided to have Velasquez start Saturday's game against the Marlins. He was in the midst of one of his best starts of the season, allowing only one hit (a home run by JT Riddle) and one run through five innings of work. The Marlins were presenting no trouble to Velasquez, who was only at 57 pitches heading into the sixth inning. However, the Phillies made the curious decision to take him out of the game after the fifth inning.
"I think that was about it," Kapler said, via NBC Sports Philadelphia's Phillies postgame show, to reporters after Saturday's game against the Marlins. "I don't think that it would have been fair to Vince, his long-term prospects, to push him past five innings of work."
We all know what happened after Velasquez was taken out of the game, the bullpen imploded and the Phillies' losing streak was extended to six games (see story).
There are two possible takeaways from Saturday's game, specifically surrounding having Velasquez be the starting pitcher. First, the decision to have Velasquez make another spot start shows a combination of a lack of suitable options in the starting rotation for the Phillies and a small showing of confidence in his abilities on the mound. In his previous start (a loss to the Atlanta Braves on June 16), Velasquez struggled and failed to make it through three innings. He was hit hard by a potent Atlanta lineup, giving up four runs on four hits in two and a third innings while receiving the loss. The fact that Kapler put him back out there the next time through the rotation should boost both Velasquez's confidence and his chances at grabbing back the fifth spot in the rotation.
"We expressed to him prior to the game that we wanted him to seize control of his spot in the rotation and I think he took a pretty large step in that direction today," Kapler said. "What he did was just right and was probably pushing just to the limit of what was safe right there."
With Velasquez's start against the Marlins resulting in a "pretty large step" towards him grabbing hold of the final spot in the rotation, it looks likely that he will once again be on the mound the next time through the rotation. However, the same concerns that had led the Phillies to attempt to move Velasquez to the bullpen still exist. All the team can hope for is that he is able to build off of perhaps the best start of his season.