June 30, 2016

PHILADELPHIA -- With the recent struggles of Aaron Nola and the inconsistent performances from the likes of Jeremy Hellickson and Zach Eflin in recent weeks, one can make a legitimate argument that the Phillies' starting pitching is currently in a state of flux as Jerad Eickhoff has been the only steady performer in the rotation.

The hope is Vince Velasquez's return can help bring some more stability.

When the Phillies (36-46) host the Kansas City Royals (43-37) on Sunday afternoon in the rubber match of the teams' three-game set, the powerful right-hander will make his first start at home since leaving after throwing just two pitches in a game against the Chicago Cubs on June 8.

Velasquez was diagnosed with a right biceps strain and missed almost three weeks of action before he returned to the hill Monday in Arizona. In his return, Velasquez, who was acquired in December from the Houston Astros in a package in return for closer Ken Giles, silenced the Diamondbacks by giving up just five hits and striking out seven over five shutout innings in an 8-0 Philadelphia victory.

Replicating that success on Sunday will be no easy task against the defending World Series champion Royals and red-hot slugger Kendrys Morales.

After mashing two homers in Saturday night's 6-2 win over the Phillies, Morales is 26-for-46 with five doubles, seven home runs and 21 RBIs over his last 12 games. That's good for a .565 average during that span.

"I feel really good at the plate and the key is I'm making hard contact when I'm swinging the bat," Morales said through the Royals' team interpreter after Saturday night's victory. "Pitch selection is key for me. When I see a pitch I can drive, I'm going to swing at it. Things are going good right now."

Morales typically is a designated hitter. But with the groove Morales is in these days, Royals manager Ned Yost found it difficult to take Morales out of his lineup this week as Kansas City visited St. Louis and Philadelphia, both National League cities.

So on this road trip, Yost has elected to play Morales in the outfield, where he hadn't played since 2008 when the Cuban slugger was with the Los Angeles Angels.

"It's worked out really good," Yost said. "The first couple of days it was like, 'OK, I'm really interested to see this happen.' But now, this has worked out really, really well for us. ... He hasn't hurt us. It's been a real pleasant surprise."

With his recent surge, Morales now has his average up to .264 on the season.

There are a couple of streaks to keep an eye on Sunday.

Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar enters Sunday riding a 13-game hitting streak, the longest of his career during a single season. He had an 18-game streak that stretched from the end of 2014 into 2015.

Phillies outfielder Peter Bourjos is riding an 11-game hit streak of his own. It ties the longest streak for a Phillie this season. Odubel Herrera did it in April. A hit on Sunday would tie the longest hitting streak of Bourjos' career.

Philadelphia is looking to get back on the winning side of the ledger after having its four-game win streak snapped on Saturday night.

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