More Sports:

September 10, 2016

Eickhoff delivers, but Harper has last laugh in Nats win

WASHINGTON – The Washington Nationals rode the right arm of one of the best pitchers in baseball and arguably the game’s most lethal bat to their 84th win of the season with three weeks left to play.

Max Scherzer and Bryce Harper are two of the many reasons the Nationals may finally being playing baseball late into next month.

For the Phillies, Saturday was just another loss that draws them closer to 90 for the second straight season, a performance that was not unexpected given their rebuilding plan. But, as with every game, there is normally a positive sign or two to draw from the night.

Jerad Eickhoff has been a positive sign for the future nearly each time he’s stepped onto the mound in 2016.

Eickhoff is the last man standing among the young, second-year pitchers who began the season in the Phillies rotation, and he’s been the most dependable starter on the staff this summer.

Pitted against the aforementioned National League Cy Young contender and Phillies killer Scherzer on Saturday night, Eickhoff was brilliant, cutting through the Nationals lineup with relative ease in six innings of a 3-0 defeat.

"Eickhoff was outstanding again today," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He’s been doing that consistently all year. That was a great performance by him. Our three starting pitchers have given up two runs in three games. We played tough team pretty tough. No new news, we just lack offense and can’t get anything going offensively. Other than that we were in every game."

Like Eickhoff, the starting pitchers who preceded him to the mound in Washington, Jake Thompson and Alec Asher, were also acquired in the Cole Hamels trade. The trio held the Nats formidable bats to two earned runs in 17 1/3 innings. 

Eickhoff used his patented curveball to strike out Harper in each of the three times the reigning NL MVP stepped in against him. When Eickhoff was out and the bullpen was in, however, Harper ripped a 3-1 offering from left-hander Patrick Schuster and sent it into the Washington bullpen, just inside the right field foul pole, for a three-run home run that ended a game-long scoreless tie.

Schuster is one of two new left-handers on the roster this month, along with Joely Rodriguez, auditioning for a left-handed relief role the Phils have struggled to fill all season.

"It wasn't a good audition," Mackanin said of Schuster, who walked Daniel Murphy before serving up the home run to Harper.

The Phillies offense was shut out for the 10th time this season. They’ve been held to one run or fewer in 15 of their 52 games since the All-Star break.

But back to Eickhoff.

While Scherzer labored early, and came out of the game with 117 pitches with two outs in the seventh, Eickhoff needed 82 pitches in holding Washington to five hits (four singles and a ground-rule double). The 26-year-old righty struck out five and walked two.

Mackanin has called Eickhoff a “bulldog” throughout the season, perhaps because the Indiana kid has battled and kept his team in the game nearly every time he took the mound. He was asked to expound on that Saturday night.

"It just looks like he’s out there to beat you," Mackanin said. "He’s mean. ... No nonsense. He’s got good body language. He doesn’t get rattled. One time, in Colorado (he was rattle) and that was it. He's a tough nut."

Following his game on Saturday, Eickhoff has held the opposition to three earned runs or fewer in 23 of his 29 starts. And in 16 of those, he held them to two or fewer runs.

Eickhoff, who already came into the game leading the Phillies in innings, has pitched six or more innings in 20 of his 29 starts.

Eickhoff’s name doesn’t often generate the same buzz as some of his rotation mates, including Vince Velasquez (author of the 16-strikeout game) and Aaron Nola (a Phillies first-round pick), let alone the best young pitchers in the game. But his performance suggests that it should.

Among major leaguers 26-years-old or younger (with at least 140 innings), Eickhoff’s 3.73 ERA ranks 10th best. The nine pitchers ahead of him include a lot of buzz-worthy names: Kyle Hendricks, Noah Syndergaard, Madison Bumgarner, Michael Fulmer, Jose Fernandez, Aaron Sanchez, Julio Teheran, Carlos Martinez, and Kevin Gausman.

That’s pretty good company. 

"(When the season began) I expected to be a darn good, constant pitcher, a workhorse type of guy," Mackanin said. "That’s what we were hoping he was going to be, and figured he would be, not only because of his stuff but because of his demeanor. The approach he takes. He’s all business, he always studies, he’s always in the video room. He pays attention and works hard at it."

And because of all of that, and some good fortune in staying healthy, Eickhoff has gone from April and into September as a dependable starting pitcher than can be counted on to keep his team competitive every fifth night. If you're a young starting pitcher, there's probably little else you could ask for than that in your first full big league season.

"One of the things I’ve always done, from the minor leaguers with the Rangers and Phillies (to now) is to just make every start," Eickhoff said of whether he had goals heading into the year five months ago. "If I’m making every start, I’m giving myself a chance to pitch in games and help these guys any way I can. I’ve been fortunate to be healthy and log a good number of innings."

And with a little help from his offense, the wins will eventually come, too.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21