CLEARWATER, Fla. – It says something about the way he is regarded that when Jerad Eickhoff threw off a bullpen mound for the first time this spring on Sunday morning, many of his mates from the Phillies pitching staff were there to watch and support him.
Eickhoff, a hard-working and earnest Midwesterner, was the Phillies’ best starting pitcher in 2016. He spent the last two seasons, however, trying to get to the bottom of an issue that caused discomfort in the fingers on his pitching hand.
He had surgery to address carpal tunnel syndrome and nerve compression in the fall and, after a brief setback in January, is back on track.
Sunday’s 20-pitch bullpen session meant a lot to the 28-year-old right-hander.
“I kind of had to collect myself, you know, take a deep breath, before I threw,” he said. “I tried to relax. To have (Zach) Eflin and (Nick) Pivetta and a couple of other guys there with me watching. They’ve been super-supportive. Everyone.”
Eickhoff mentioned pitching coach Chris Young and manager Gabe Kapler. They were both there for every pitch.
“Everyone has been so great to me and supportive through this whole process,” Eickhoff said. “That means the most to me. It was just 20 pitches, but for me it means a lot more than that.”
Eickhoff got through the session smoothly, with no issues. He even snapped off a couple overhand curveballs, one of his best pitches. He used that pitch to strike out eight batters in 3 1/3 innings on Sept. 28 in his only big-league start last season.
“I’m really trying to focus on each day and each task and today was great,” he said.
On paper, the Phillies’ starting rotation is probably set with Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta, Pivetta, Eflin and Vince Velasquez.
However, things can change significantly in the six weeks that remain before opening day. Pitching is fragile and injuries can occur. (Look no further than Eickhoff last spring.) Trades can be made. The front office has monitored the market for free agent Dallas Keuchel all winter and might be poised to strike if a short-term deal presents itself.
Kapler said it was too early to consider whether Eickhoff would be in the hunt for a spot in the season-opening rotation.
“Even to address it is getting ahead of ourselves,” he said. “Out of respect for Jerad, just the fact that he got through the bullpen session feeling good with a big smile on his face is enough for now.”
Eickhoff agreed with that sentiment.
“For me, first and foremost, is being healthy and getting to the point where I’m throwing live BPs and I’m able to get in games and I’m completely symptom-free and it’s behind me and the trust is there and all of that,” he said. “Once that gets behind me and gets into play, I think it’ll shift to ‘I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I know what I need to do,’ and I think the chips will fall where they will.”
Eickhoff does have a minor-league option if the Phillies want him to build up some healthy innings early in the season. But if he pitches like he did in 2016 – he led the staff with 197 1/3 innings and a 3.65 ERA – he will be in a factor in Philadelphia before long.
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