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June 07, 2016

Eickhoff, Howard fuel Phillies to victory over the Cubs

And on the seventh day, Ryan Howard rose from his seat in the clubhouse, marched through the tunnel the leads to the field at Citizens Bank Park, and jogged out to his position at first base.

Now, the start of the latest chapter in our long Philadelphia nightmare, the very thought that Howard could jump into the Phillies lineup once a week and send rookie Tommy Joseph to the bench. Surely it could ruin the rookie.

Of course, it will do no such thing if manager Pete Mackanin continues to employ Joseph as his starting first baseman more regularly than Howard in the final four months of the season. If the last week (and Joseph’s production in that week) is any indication, Mackanin will almost surely go that route.

And even if he doesn’t, and Howard isn’t the starter but plays more often than the paying customers would like, it says here that it won’t ruin the development of Joseph. Just ask a 37-year-old Chase Utley if he was able to rebound and go on to have a fruitful career after sharing time at second base with Placido Polanco for the last half of 2004 and the first half of 2005.

Three days after having a beer bottle heaved his way in the middle of his weeklong rest, Howard was back in the Phillies starting lineup. He ripped a fourth-inning solo home run in the Phillies' 3-2 win over the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday night.

"It felt good, it felt good," said Howard, who brought most of the crowd of 27,381 to their feet again in the eighth inning with a long shot to the warning track in center. "I would have liked that last one, too. But I’ll take it. I’m just trying to put together good at-bats tonight and I got one to fall in."

Howard, whose ninth home run of the season moved him one away from Maikel Franco for the team lead, finished the night 1-for-3 with a home run and a walk. Two months into the 2016 season, his final in Philadelphia, the 36-year-old Howard is hitting .153, which ranks 250th among the 251 major league players with at least 125 plate appearances this season.

"For what he’s been going through, it was nice to see him hit that home run," Mackanin said. "I think it gave him a little more confidence."

But enough about Howard. He will do a non-contending team no harm as an extra player on the bench for four months.

Jerad Eickhoff, unlike Howard, will be in a Phillies uniform in 2017. And if he pitches like he did on Tuesday night, he’ll be a fixture in the rotation and an important piece of their next contending team.

While his offense scratched out single runs in the first, fourth, and seventh innings, Eickhoff held the most potent offense in the National League to one run on two hits in seven sparkling innings. The 25-year-old Indianan was dominant early, striking out seven of the first 13 batters he faced.

"That's as good as he's been all year," Mackanin said, the praise more impressive when you consider it came against the Cubs unforgiving lineup.

Eickhoff finished with eight strikeouts and two walks. Eickhoff’s 4.13 strikeout-to-walk rate ranks 10th in the National League, just behind Max Scherzer, Jose Fernandez, and Stephen Strasburg. (Teammate Aaron Nola’s 5.67 K-BB rate ranks third).

But the most impressive number that came from Eickhoff’s performance: he got three of his eight strikeouts Tuesday with his still-improving slider. Before the night, Eickhoff had only got five strikeouts on his slider in 11 starts.

“I think I’ve always been comfortable throwing it, I think it just came down to throwing more," Eickhoff said. "It actually started three, four starts ago. I had a conversation with (pitching coach Bob McClure) and actually with (radio broadcaster and former Phillies pitcher) Larry Andersen, talking about it a little bit. That was kind of the spark and just throwing it more, I think having confidence in it no matter what count it is. That was key.”

Perhaps more impressive that Eickhoff’s improving repertoire: the magic trick Jeanmar Gomez pulled off to nail down a win for the starter and the rest of the team. Gomez’s major-league leading 19th save of the season began by entering a bases-loaded, no-out situation with the top of the Cubs order up in the eighth inning and his team up by two runs.

Gomez got a fly ball to left that resulted in a sacrifice fly, and then Andres Blanco, who had just entered the game on a double switch, stabbed a ball to his backhand and got together with Freddy Galvis to turn a nifty, inning-ending, rally-killing double play. 

"Here’s a guy who’s asked to go in, plays sparingly, and he comes in in a big game and makes a great play to start a double play," Mackanin said of Blanco.

"Freddy got rid of it quick," Howard said. "Big momentum play for us."

Gomez finished off the Cubs in the ninth and the Phillies improved to 15-5 in one-run games in 2016. It was the first multiple-inning save of Gomez's career.

"He looked a little nervous today," Mackanin said of his normally unflappable closer. "He was brought into a real tense situation and made good pitches. He gets ground balls and the defense can take over."


"He was wiping his forehead," Mackanin said with a chuckle. "But I was nervous, too."

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21