Nova-Velasquez matchup key as Phillies visit Pirates

PITTSBURGH -- On its face, the starting pitching matchup between the Philadelphia Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates in the second of their three-game series Saturday at PNC Park looks like a mismatch.

On one hand, there is Phillies right-hander Vince Velasquez, who was the talk of baseball a year ago at this time. But times have since become hard.

For the Pirates, Ivan Nova takes the mound, only a few weeks removed from being named National League Pitcher of the Month for April, beating out some tough competition.

Advantage, Pirates, right? Probably, but not necessarily.

Velasquez, a flame-throwing right-hander, broke in with Houston in 2015 before his trade to Philadelphia in a multi-player deal. He had an up-and-down year with the Phillies, but left an indelible mark with a complete-game shutout in April in which he struck out 16.

On July 19, 2016, Velasquez's record stood at 8-2 with a 3.15 ERA. By season's end (his last start was Sept. 3) he was 8-6, 4.12. Injuries played a role. So did a lack of consistent location.

Has anything changed? With a 2/3 record and a 5.65 ERA, the 24-year-old Velasquez has yet to regain his form. In his previous start on Sunday against Washington, he threw 100 pitches in just five innings but grinded out a reasonable outing, allowing two earned while striking out five and walking three.

It's been a mixed bag, with no better evidence than Velasquez's May 6 start, also against the Nationals, when he struck out eight and walked none, the latter figure a huge accomplishment for a pitcher with control issues. Yet he also gave up seven hits and six earned runs.

"I've got to do a better job of pitch selection," Velasquez said after that outing. "Again, it's just you live and learn."

Meanwhile, Nova, has been the polar opposite -- a model of consistency since the Pirates practically stole him from the New York Yankees last season. In 11 starts with Pittsburgh in 2016, the right-hander was 5-2 with a 3.06 ERA. But the eye-popping statistic was this: Three walks in 64 2/3 innings.

In earning the monthly pitching award, Nova yielded six earned runs in five starts. No one expects that all the time, but so far in May, Nova has been slightly off. His 2.48 ERA still ranks high in the league among starters, but his three outings this month have generated nine earned runs in 18 1/3 innings.

The 30-year-old veteran has pitched five complete games and walked seven in his 19 starts since coming to Pittsburgh last year.

Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier in the week that Nova has benefited from the adeptness of the team's catchers to frame strikes.

"They're going to be swinging, because they know he's a strike-thrower," Searage said. "Before they know it, they'll have a comfortable 0 for 4. He'll will wear them out."

Nova (3-3) pitched six innings in a no-decision against Arizona on Sunday, giving up nine hits and three earned runs with four strikeouts and one walk. In two career starts against the Phillies, one with the Yankees, Nova has a win and a no-decision, allowing one earned run in 12 2/3 innings.
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