BALTIMORE — Jerad Eickhoff, out all season with a lat injury suffered early in spring training, has taken the next step toward returning to the Phillies.
Making a rehab start in the first game of Double A Reading's doubleheader Tuesday morning, Eickhoff threw 53 pitches and allowed three runs (two earned) over 3⅓ innings. He struck out three, walked one and allowed a solo home run just before being pulled.
Eickhoff will likely make a couple more rehab starts to build up his pitch count to the 85-90 range.
Keep in mind, too, that with Zach Eflin pitching well, there's no rush on the Phillies' part to get Eickhoff back in the rotation. As long as all five starters are healthy, it makes the most sense to ease Eickhoff back in and start him once he's fully up to speed and confident.
About 14 months ago, many were high on Eickhoff. In 41 starts in 2015 and '16, he had a 3.44 ERA and 1.14 WHIP with 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.0 walks.
Then he struggled through pretty much all of 2017, going 4-8 with a 4.71 ERA in 24 starts. His walk rate nearly doubled, and his opponents hit .281 after hitting .243 the prior two seasons.
Eickhoff's curveball last season just didn't have the same bite, and hitters teed off on his fastball to the tune of a .341 batting average.
The hope is that the 27-year-old is over the back injuries and will revert to form. His swinging strike rate has decreased each season and that's something this Phils regime — from the front office to the dugout — values heavily.
"We're going to set our sights on him joining the rotation," GM Matt Klentak said Tuesday. "Jerad, based on his track record, I think that's what we need to be focused on. He's earned that. When that day comes, we still have a few weeks until that day comes, but when that time comes we'll make the best decision we can based on the information that we have at that moment. A lot can change between now and his activation date."
The Phillies activated Mark Leiter Jr. off the 10-day DL and he is available out of the bullpen tonight.
Leiter missed two months with a flexor strain in his right elbow.
Leiter's return gives the Phillies another useful, versatile bullpen arm. He had several very impressive outings in 2017, both out of the rotation and 'pen.
While Gabe Kapler did not rule out Leiter one day returning to spot-start duty, he said Tuesday that it simply comes down to the Phillies needing a reliever more than they need another starter right now.
"He did a great job starting for us in spring training and he looked like a guy who could get outs and go through a lineup two or three times," Kapler said of Leiter. "So I think there's some profile there as a starter. He's got four usable pitches and command.
"That said, we have some starters who are performing so we kind of go based on need and fit for our roster. That's not to say he won't ever end up as a starter. It's a possibility, but right now on our team, we need a reliever more than we need a starter."