Phillies can't solve Yu Darvish in 5-1 loss to Rangers

Texas Rangers' Yu Darvish of Japan throws to the Philadelphia Phillies in the first inning of a baseball game, Tuesday, May 16, 2017, in Arlington, Texas.

ARLINGTON, Texas - There was a time when Jerad Eickhoff dreamed of baseball at Globe Life Park. He was a 15th-round pick of the Rangers. He rose through their minor-league system as a teammate of Nomar Mazara, Joey Gallo, and Rougned Odor, with the hope of one day pitching in the same rotation as Yu Darvish.

"It definitely wasn't just another start," Eickhoff said Tuesday after a 5-1 Phillies loss. "Just walking through here, it was a pretty emotional experience."

He thought about the day, six Mays ago, when he pitched on the mound here in a predraft workout with Nolan Ryan in attendance. Texas had sacrificed him, and four other prospects, in a trade with the Phillies to acquire Cole Hamels because these two teams are in divergent stages of the baseball cycle.

Eickhoff is the most dependable Phillies starter, while Darvish paces Texas. The difference, displayed Tuesday, was sizable.

Eickhoff looked improved after a string of shaky starts. But he is not the caliber of Darvish, who until Tuesday had never faced the Phillies but built a reputation in the American League as one of the game's dominant arms. Only Michael Saunders had ever faced Darvish, and the others studied video that showed a steep challenge.

"He's got probably - arguably - the best slider in baseball, in my opinion," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. "When that's the first time a team sees him, it has to be tough, especially the way he located it."

The Phillies pushed Darvish in the later innings. They put a man in scoring position in the fifth, sixth, and seventh. They cracked him in the seventh, with a run-scoring Freddy Galvis single that rolled to center field. That brought Brock Stassi to the plate, with the tying runs on the corners.

Darvish threw Stassi a first-pitch slider for strike one. Stassi fouled a cutter and a slider. Darvish spiked a slider. Then he threw his best fastball, at 97 mph, chest-high. Stassi ripped it foul. He had a chance.

But Darvish countered with a 76-mph curveball, down and away. It was a devious pitch, especially after the potent fastball that preceded it. Stassi whiffed. He stood in the batter's box, deep in thought and powerless against Darvish, who allowed one run in seven innings.

"The stuff, as good as he had," Stassi said, "that was the last thing I was thinking about - the big, slow curveball."

Darvish is a free agent at the end of the season. If healthy, he will command a vast sum. The Phillies, flush with cash, could be suitors. But team president Andy MacPhail has stated several times his reluctance to overpay for a free-agent pitcher. The Phillies would rather grow their arms and sign the bats.

Darvish, 30, could test that.

Eickhoff lasted six innings, which is a milestone these days for Phillies pitchers. He allowed two earned runs; a third scored as a result of a misfire by catcher Cameron Rupp on a botched pickoff play. Eickhoff struck out eight. He walked two. It was progress.

"He looked closer to himself than he has been for his past two or three starts," Mackanin said.

For Eickhoff, the night was full of emotion. He had not been on this ballpark's mound since May 2011 when the Rangers invited him here for a workout as a lottery ticket.

"They knew I was from Indiana and I had a long drive," Eickhoff said. "So they let me go first."

It was hot. Ryan, Eickhoff remembered, stood behind the cage with his arms crossed. A month later, the Rangers drafted Eickhoff from a small community college and put him on the path toward reaching the majors with the Phillies.

That day stuck with him, even during a loss Tuesday.

"The stuff they did for me," Eickhoff said, "I'm just very humbled and appreciative of that."