Phillies' spring training opener is big step for Jerad Eickhoff

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Jerad Eickhoff was in the Phillies bullpen on Thursday afternoon ready to begin his warm-up tosses, knowing that his two-innings of work against the University of Tampa in an almost-empty stadium would carry little meaning, when the feeling hit him.

Eickhoff had not pitched in a game in six months. Last season was a wreck. Poor mechanics triggered a series of injuries that plagued him almost all season. He was  not the durable pitcher he proved to be a year earlier. So Eickhoff, even if his opposition was a group of college kids, was eager to get back.

“You still get butterflies,” Eickhoff said after pitching the first two innings of a 9-0 exhibition win. “Today was a big day. The sky’s the limit here. It was good to get it off my chest and just move forward.”

The game may not have counted, but it was a sizable step for Eickhoff as he begins a pivotal season. He is the  No. 2 starter and the Phillies need the righthander to be healthy. They will rely heavily on him, especially if they opt against adding another pitcher.  Eickhoff made 33 starts in 2016 and logged 197 innings. The righthander was durable and consistent. The Phillies cling to that season as hope.

A back muscle flared up early last season and Eickhoff  fought  on. The problem, he later realized, was caused by the way he fell toward first base at the end of his delivery. The strain soon moved to his chest and eventually to his right hand before the Phillies shut him down in August with nerve irritation. It was a culmination of things, Eickhoff said. He made adjustments this offseason, moving his glove placement and being attentive to how he finishes his follow-through. Eickhoff said he feels great.

“I say it every year and people say it as a joke, but I don’t take it as a joke. I try to fight away and compete every year, every spring training,” Eickhoff said. “I’m trying to win a job. I just want to help these guys and compete for these guys. Every year, I have something to prove.”

The injuries seemed to take life off Eickhoff’s four-seam fastball, a pitch he had used as a nice companion to an excellent curveball. The fastball was hammered last season. He struggled to command it and the velocity dipped. Opponents batted .314 against it with a .494 slugging percentage. He made nine fewer starts than he did in 2016 and logged nearly 70 fewer innings, and his 4.71 ERA was more than a run higher. It was a rough season.

A new one started Thursday with butterflies. And then came a conversation with catcher Andrew Knapp, who told him to throw his four-seam fastball and command it with confidence. Most of the 14 pitches were fastballs and Eickhoff was pleased. He threw first-pitch strikes to each of the seven batters he faced. It was just a group of college kids. But it was a start.

“To get on the mound again and feel those butterflies again and being able to compete is what you miss the most,” Eickhoff said.