Phillies

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

usa_jerad_eickhoff.jpg
USA Today Images

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.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Phillies

Phillies Talk podcast: Will there be baseball or not? 50 games would be lame

phillies-talk-harper-hoskins-realmuto-dugout.jpg
Getty Images

Phillies Talk podcast: Will there be baseball or not? 50 games would be lame

Jim Salisbury and Corey Seidman break down potential compromises between MLB players and owners to get a deal done and baseball back on our screens.

• Gut-feelings/educated guesses: Will there be a 2020 MLB season?

• How can these sides stop circling around each other and find a compromise?

• Ideas for a pay structure.

• What would a 50-game or 60-game season look like schedule-wise?

• Phillies and other clubs hemorrhaging money right now.

• Memories from next week's classic Phillies-Dodgers NLCS re-air.

Subscribe and rate the Phillies Talk podcast:
Apple Podcasts / Google Play / Spotify / Stitcher / Art19 / YouTube

More on the Phillies

5 years later, Jeff Francoeur remembers Chase Utley having his back on the mound

5 years later, Jeff Francoeur remembers Chase Utley having his back on the mound

We've taken many strolls down Memory Lane during baseball's shutdown, but maybe not one as sad and ugly as this one.

Or, frankly, as humorous.

We're nearing the five-year anniversary of the low point of one of the most dreadful seasons in Phillies history.

Remember 2015? Ninety-nine (bleeping) losses. A season so bad it made Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg run away and hide.

Remember June 16 in Baltimore, the night that sorry season went from bad to completely off the hook?

Literally.

Jeff Francoeur remembers.

And not only because his left butt cheek hurt so much when it was all over.

Truth be told, even though the Phillies lost by the embarrassing score of 19-3 to the Orioles that night to complete their worst road trip in 132 years — yes, 132 — and even though the pitching coach and the team's star player almost dropped the gloves on the mound, Francoeur had a blast.

And he let that be known in the dugout after the seventh inning.

"I told the guys, 'Hey, I'm the only one to put up a donut tonight," the likable former Phillie recalled with a laugh on our Phillies Talk podcast recently. "It was a horrible road trip, the end of a bad time, yet it was kind of funny how it was able to play out. I still laugh when I think about it."

Francoeur spent a dozen years roaming the outfield for eight different big-league teams. Like many top baseball-playing athletes, he pitched in high school and dreamed of taking the mound just one time in the majors.

He was a reserve player during his one season in Philadelphia and more than once in that dismal campaign had reminded skipper Sandberg and pitching coach Bob McClure that he was available for bullpen duty if the team was having a particularly bad night at the office.

"We lost quite a few games in blowout fashion that year, so I was always kind of begging, 'Let me go in the game, let me go in the game,'" Francoeur recalled. "Ryno, to his defense, and I thought it was great, he never really wanted position players to pitch. He'd say, 'We've got enough arms to cover it.'"

But on June 16, 2015, as his team was on its way to completing an 0-8 road trip and his time as Phillies manager was nearing an end, Sandberg was forced to ditch his policy of not using position players on the hill. Jerome Williams had gotten torched and injured in the first inning and the Phillies had rolled through three relievers in the first six innings. 

In the fifth inning, Sandberg sidled up to Francoeur in the dugout.

"You still volunteering?" the manager asked.

"Absolutely!" the wannabe pitcher exclaimed.

As a player, Francoeur had a personal policy of putting his phone away and not checking it when he arrived at the ballpark for his workday. But on this night, he broke his own rule. After learning from Sandberg that he would pitch the seventh inning, he tiptoed into the clubhouse, pulled out his phone and called his wife, Catie, who was watching the game back in Philadelphia.

Catie, who knew her husband would never be near his phone at the ballpark, saw the number pop up and answered the phone in a panic.

"Don't worry," Jeff whispered. "Call my parents, get the DVR ready, I'm coming in the game to pitch."

Francoeur headed to the bullpen in the top of the seventh to warm up. Though he had pitched in high school and once in Triple A, this was different.

"My heart was pounding a mile a minute," he said.

He entered the game in the bottom of the inning. It was hardly a high leverage situation. The Phils trailed by a footballish score of 17-3. The Orioles' line score to that point looked like this: 6 3 3 1 1 3.

So, of course, Francoeur, throwing in the low 90s, had a 1-2-3 inning, the Phillies' first and only one of the night.

Looking for another quick inning, Sandberg sent Francoeur out for the eighth. That's when things went off the hook. Literally. Francoeur gave up a homer to Ryan Flaherty, the Orioles' eighth bomb of the game, then had trouble throwing strikes. He hit a batter. Walked a couple. His pitch count was soaring. Sandberg and McClure wanted to get someone up in the bullpen but they couldn't because the bullpen phone was off the hook. It wasn't until someone in the 'pen noticed McClure waving a white flag that the phone was put back on the hook.

By this time, Francoeur was laboring on the mound and Chase Utley was getting pissed. McClure went to the mound and was joined there by the entire infield. Utley, in no uncertain words, expressed his displeasure for what was going on and the way Francoeur was being pushed. Francoeur said he had one more hitter in him. He got that hitter and the inning — and the ordeal — mercifully ended with two runs in.

Five years later, the image of Utley giving McClure an earful is still fresh.

Was it as tense as it looked?

"Oh, it was worse than that," Francoeur said. "There were probably seven F-bombs in it. I thought those two were about to go right there on the mound. I said, 'This is all we need.' I remember I looked at Chase and thanked him for coming to my defense. I looked at Bob and I said, 'Look, this is my last hitter here,' and luckily, somehow, I got out of that inning. I still don't know how, but I did.

"To Bob's defense, he knew it. He said, 'We've let this get out of control.' But at that point, I wanted to dig a hole and bury myself right there on the mound at Camden Yards. My first inning, that was phenomenal. The eighth inning, I had that coming and I take full responsibility for it."

The clubhouse was tense after that loss, the Phillies' 20th in a 25-game stretch. There were rumblings that big changes were coming, that Andy MacPhail was about to be hired as club president — and, indeed, he was. Sandberg called the loss "ugly," and added, "I almost don't know what to say." McClure denied any friction with Utley. Utley didn't make himself available to reporters after the game.

Francoeur, an upbeat, positive soul, was all of that after the game. His arm was fine. He said he had no issues with anyone and said the Phillies owed the Orioles an ass-whuppin' the next night in Philadelphia.

The Phillies lost that game, too.

Nine days later, Sandberg, worn down by the losing, resigned from the job.

Francoeur played out the rest of the season with the Phillies and was passionate about the team avoiding 100 losses. That is still one of his takeaways from the season. That and the sore left butt cheek.

"Two hours after the game, my left butt cheek was killing me from landing 48 times," he said with a laugh. "I could hardly even get off the train back in Philly.

"But I am the only one who put up a goose egg that night."

Subscribe and rate the Phillies Talk podcast:
Apple Podcasts / Google Play / Spotify / Stitcher / Art19 / YouTube

More on the Phillies