Jerad Eickhoff takes a healthy step in front of a supportive crowd

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Jerad Eickhoff takes a healthy step in front of a supportive crowd

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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The thoughts and sounds behind Bryce Harper's jaw-dropping home run

The thoughts and sounds behind Bryce Harper's jaw-dropping home run

Aaron Nola had no chance at seeing where the ball landed.

Not many did, unless you were a fan leisurely strolling through the center-field concourse and enjoying the amenities of Ashburn Alley at Citizens Bank Park.

"I think it went over the stadium, from where I was sitting," Nola said. "It was a long one."

That's how powerfully Bryce Harper struck his first-inning home run in the Phillies' 2-1 win over the Rockies (see observations). The ball left his bat at 114.1 miles per hour, traveled 466 feet and cleared the brick walls in center field.

It was loud and it made the sellout crowd of 42,354 fans louder.

"I think just as a fan, you just stop and watch the distance of the ball," manager Gabe Kapler said. "I don't think we saw a ball go that far to center field all year last year and certainly not this year. That's rare territory. Pretty impressive."

Harper pounced on a first-pitch fastball from Rockies right-hander Antonio Senzatela. The swing consisted of everything you want to see from Harper, who is 5 for 15 (.333) over his last four games with the homer and three doubles.

He's staying back and driving the ball.

"I think he's beginning to feel it," Kapler said. "I think part of that comes from the work he's been doing with [hitting coach] John Mallee, specifically being a little bit taller on his backside and his hands being a little bit closer to his body."

Harper didn't want to make too much about the distance of his home run. He remembered some advice from a former manager and five-time All-Star.

"Matt Williams always used to tell me, 'It's not how far, it's how many you hit,'" Harper said. "I'm just trying to go about it the right way every single day, doing things out there that help this team win. Just putting the bat to the ball and trying to win games.

Harper has eight home runs and 28 RBIs in 45 games. He has a .371 on-base percentage and is second in baseball to only Mike Trout with 34 walks.

However, he's hitting .230 and was 10 for his last 70 (.143) prior to this 5-for-15 stretch. The Phillies are seeing positive signs, though, from Harper's swing.

"We all believed he was going to break out of what he was in," Nola said. "Guy works hard, works hard at what he does. We've all seen what he's done in his career. Nobody is pressing over him, we know he's the gamer that he is and he does a lot to help the team.

On Saturday, it was a walk, a double and vicious contact on the first pitch he saw.

"I think Harp is best when he's gap to gap," Kapler said. "Every once in a while, he's out in front and pulls the ball down the line. He's at his best when he's hitting high line drives into the gaps, and the ones that he gets just underneath go into the seats or in this case, over everything in center field."

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The weather is warming and here comes Phillies' Aaron Nola

The weather is warming and here comes Phillies' Aaron Nola

The sun was beaming and Aaron Nola was in attack mode, letting the ball rip through the 78-degree heat.

Just like the days back in Baton Rouge, Louisiana?

"It's hot as hell down there in the summer," Nola said with a smile about his hometown.

It wasn't quite that hot Saturday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, but Nola looked at home. He looked like himself, the Nola everybody watched in 2018 when he finished third in the National League Cy Young voting.

Or on second thought …

"Not just the 2018 version, but the best version of the 2018 version," manager Gabe Kapler said.

As the weather turns to warmer temperatures, the man with the most important right arm on the first-place Phillies could be turning into form. It sure appeared that way Saturday as he struck out a career-high-tying 12 batters to pick apart the Rockies in the Phillies' 2-1 win (see observations).

Nola delivered six innings of one-run ball in 106 pitches. He was firing from the get-go, striking out the side in the first inning on 13 pitches. All three punchouts were looking and punctuated by fastballs.

Five days ago from the same mound, Nola needed 38 pitches to finish the first inning against the Brewers. The weather was miserable, a wet 48 degrees at first pitch. He lasted just three frames, throwing 84 pitches in a no-decision.

That performance is now safely buried in the past.

"He was sharp, he was electric, he was running his fastball back over the plate off of the inside," Kapler said. "The curveball was sharp from the outset. When his curveball is good, you see lots of swings and misses, you see empty swings, and that's what was happening today for him."

Nola has a Louisiana coolness to him. The 25-year-old is laid-back, but he's laser-focused.

It's why the Phillies haven't been too worried about his 4.86 ERA entering Saturday or his pinpoint command not being all there through nine starts.

"When I've had conversations with Aaron after the starts that haven't been great, he's so consistent in talking about his process and that being the thing that he can control and the work that he does between starts," Kapler said. "He never comes off of that position. He doesn't cry in his soup, he's not thinking about the last outing that he had, he's already on to the next one. I think the reason that we saw him come out like lightning today is because of the work that he did between starts."

Nola improved to 4-0 with a 4.47 ERA, 60 strikeouts and 21 walks. He's 10 starts into the 2019 season and is only warming. Still, the Phillies have led the NL East and are just starting to see his best around mid-May.

"That's what I remember when I was with the Nats, facing that," Bryce Harper said. "It's getting hot out there, he's from Baton Rouge, so he likes pitching in hot weather, warm weather."

A quiet competitor like Nola knew Saturday's effort was possible, even with his previous start still fresh.

"It's baseball, anything happens," Nola said. "Last outing, I never threw 80-some pitches in three innings. I've never done it before, but it happens. Things can change really quick. Always got to trust what you're doing and keep working hard through the ups and downs."

That warm weather didn't hurt, either.

"It felt good outside," Nola said. "I got a good sweat on, I like sweating when I'm out there."

The Phillies will like Nola in the summer.

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