PHILADELPHIA -- With Spencer Howard literally waiting in the wings, Vince Velasquez offered a latest reminder of why the Phillies' top pitching prospect's impending major-league debut is almost certain to be more than a cameo.
Making his first start in two weeks and working at a pace so deliberate that it could be mistaken for trying to delay Howard's first start in the second game of Sunday's doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves, Velasquez threw 76 pitches and recorded only 12 outs, not nearly enough even in a seven-inning game to keep the Phillies' maligned bullpen from imploding again.
On cue, and in a span of 16 pitches in the fifth inning -- one by Velasquez, seven by Deolis Guerra and eight by Adam Morgan -- the Phillies' one-run lead turned into a four-run deficit en route to a 5-2 loss to the Braves at Citizens Bank Park.
Velasquez put a runner on base in each of the first four innings and struggled with his command, particularly of his curveball. He resorted to mostly a fastball-changeup mix and was unable to put away hitters after getting ahead in counts.
"I would put away guys with that curveball, but I had no command with that at all," Velasquez said. "Today was not really a solid day as far as commanding all the pitches. I threw a lot more pitches than I should've."
But Velasquez nevertheless managed to keep the Braves off the board through four innings and was sent back out by manager Joe Girardi to start the fifth. After a leadoff single by Tyler Flowers, Girardi called on a bullpen that entered the day with a collective 6.93 ERA through eight games.
A 1-0 lead felt more precarious than ever, and after recording one out, Guerra gave up a line-drive two-run homer to left field by Braves star Ronald Acuna Jr. After Dansby Swanson singled, Girardi summoned lefty Adam Morgan, who gave up a single to Freddie Freeman, walked Marcell Ozuna and allowed Adam Duvall's double off the base of the left-field fence.
Even with Howard on deck to make the most hotly anticipated debut start for a Phillies pitcher since at least Aaron Nola in 2015 and perhaps Cole Hamels in 2006, it's doubtful that Velasquez was pitching for his spot in the rotation. Not with five other doubleheaders already on the schedule and a stretch of 33 games in 30 days, from Aug. 25 to Sept. 24.
The Phillies are going to need more starters, not fewer, to get through that gantlet.
But Velasquez also displayed the vexing inconsistency that has marked his Phillies career. He loaded the bases in a 27-pitch second inning but escaped without allowing a run. He gave up a two-out double to Freeman in the third and a leadoff walk to Nick Markakis in the fourth. Again, the Braves didn't score.