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April 13, 2016

Eickhoff dominant as Phillies top Padres, 2-1

According to the people responsible for ranking or stacking such things, Jerad Eickhoff was the fourth best of the six players (five prospects) the Phillies received from the Texas Rangers nine months ago in the Cole Hamels trade.

Jorge Alfaro, a catcher, had the big arm and bigger bat. Nick Williams was a rising, all-round outfield prospect with modest pop. Jake Thompson was the right-handed pitcher with the higher ceiling.

But Eickhoff beat them all to the big leagues, so he has that going for him. He also had this, entering his start on Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Park: since making his major league debut with the Phillies last August, the 25-year-old Eickhoff was one of only nine major league pitchers with an ERA under 2.75 and a WHIP lower than 1.10 in the last eight months (among pitchers with at least 50 innings).

Jake Arrieta, Clayton Kershaw, J.A. Happ, Stephen Strasburg, Felix Hernandez, Marco Estrada, Jon Lester, and Noah Syndergaard. And Jerad Eickhoff.

Eickhoff was at Double-A Frisco this time last year. Surely he doesn’t belong in that company.

"A lot of those guys have won Cy Youngs," catcher Cameron Rupp, taking a look at the list. "It shows you how good he is. He backed it up tonight. That was impressive."

Perhaps we should stop considering where Eickhoff was rated and where he came from and instead sit back and watch him prove he belongs. Eickhoff, making his 10th major league start on Wednesday, was masterful against the hapless San Diego Padres in a 2-1 Phillies win.

"I can’t say enough good things about him," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He was in total command the entire time he was in that game. He was terrific."

Armed with a ridiculous, wipe-out curveball and a fastball that touched 95 when he needed it to, Eickhoff pitched seven shutout innings, striking out nine and walking zero. All he would need was Maikel Franco (a solo home run in the first, a run-scoring double in the third) and a sturdy two innings from the bullpen.

He received the first.

The second, was, well … interesting. David Hernandez gave up a leadoff single, watched Ryan Howard throw a ball away, and walked a guy … and yet managed to escape the eighth inning with the perfect top half of the scoreboard unharmed. 

Jeanmar Gomez followed by recording the first two outs with ease, then giving up a run ... but still escaped and recorded his fourth save in four tries.

The Phillies, who began the season with four straight losses, have won four of their last five games. But since the start of the season, win or lose, their starting pitching has managed to keep them in games, something Mackanin has been saying nightly for the last week.

"I hope I sound like a broken record all year," Mackanin said. 

Eickhoff followed Charlie Morton (6 2/3 shutout innings on Tuesday), who followed Aaron Nola (four earned runs, but also nine strikeouts and no walks), who followed Jeremy Hellickson (outpitched Matt Harvey), who followed Vincent Velasquez (six shutout innings), and, well, you get it.

Nine games into the season, the Phillies have one of the best starting pitching staffs in baseball. 

When Eickhoff walked off the mound after his seventh and final inning on Wednesday, the Phillies rotation had a 2.50 ERA and 4.92 strikeout-to-walk ration. Looking at major league statistics entering the game, those figures would rank first and second in the big leagues, respectively. 

Following Wednesday's slate of games, those Phillies rotation ERA and K-to-BB rate figures ranked third and first.

"It’s been very impressive," Mackanin said. "I don’t see any reason why we won’t continue to pitch well for the most part, for the entire season if we stay healthy. They’ve all shown the ability to command all of their stuff, mix their pitches and keep hitters off-balanced."

Eickhoff showed off his impressive stuff on Wednesday. He used his otherworldly hook for punch-out pitches on each of his first seven strikeouts. 

"When you can put your fingers down," Rupp said, "and know (the hitter) is out, that's fun."

On Eickhoff's eighth strikeout, he finally mixed it up: with two outs and a runner on third, Eickhoff reared back and fired a 95-MPH fastball by Padres cleanup hitter Will Myers.

"That pitch, two outs," Eickhoff recalled,  "I was wanting to get into one." 

So a knee-bending hook that Mackanin said was "unhittable" at times and the ability to rear back and dial 95, too? Maybe Eickhoff can hang with the Kershaws and King Felixes some day.

"It’s kind of cool," Eickhoff said, looking at the aforementioned list of pitchers over baseball's last two months, dating back to last August. "Obviously I’m not trying to be anybody but myself. I have confidence in my stuff, and that’s what you have to do to pitch up here."

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21