March 22, 2016
CLEARWATER, Fla. – Jerad Eickhoff’s first at-bat of the spring came in what felt like a prototypical bunting situation.
Of course it did.
Eickhoff, who began camp behind schedule after suffering a small fracture to his right thumb while bunting in the cage a week before the team’s first official workout, stepped into the batter’s box against Minnesota’s Phil Hughes with runners on the corners and one out in the second inning.
He hit a broken-bat fielder’s choice back up the middle to knock the run home.
“If I had to bunt, I had to bunt,” Eickhoff said. “But they didn’t ask me.”
“That was a miscommunication,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “Let’s put it that way.”
Eickhoff’s ability to bunt going forward is probably nothing more than a mental hurdle he’ll overcome through drills in the next two weeks. More importantly for the Phillies and the 25-year-old right-hander’s progression as big league starting pitcher: he was effective from the mound in his first Grapefruit League start of the spring.
Eickhoff allowed a pair of solo home runs to Daniel Palka but showed off an impressive grasp of his off-speed pitches in the Phillies 7-5 defeat to the Minnesota Twins.
The majority of damage on Eickhoff’s pitching line came from Palka, a minor leaguer on Minnesota’s roster as a result of the Twins split-squad schedule. Palka swung – and swung hard – at each of the three pitches he saw from Eickhoff in a pair of quick (and productive) at-bats.
“It’s just one of those things,” Eickhoff said. “I’m trying to fill up the strike zone (early) and the ball kind of got up and got out.”
Eickhoff allowed just one other run on two hits in four innings, striking out seven and walking two. His trademark curveball was mid-season sharp and his improving changeup was on target, too.
The latter may have actually benefitted from his layoff earlier in the spring, when the thumb injury made him play around with grips on his off-speed pitches to reduce the discomfort.
“Honestly I was talking to (pitching coach Bob McClure) and with my thumb getting hurt, I was able to mix and match with the pressure points on my finger with the changeup,” he said. “I think that actually, looking back on it, it could have been a good thing. I’m going to take that as a positive.”
Eickhoff will make two more exhibition starts before jumping into his spot in the rotation – perhaps in the third game of the season (in Cincinnati) or in the fourth (in the New York Mets home opener). Mackanin was asked if he had any reservations anymore with Eickhoff, given his slow start to the spring.
“None at all,” the manager said. “He pitched very well. He made a few bad pitches, but in general, he made a lot of good ones. That curveball is still a very impressive pitch for him. I'm real happy to see what he did today.”
And as for the bunting?
“I think it’s more mental than anything,” Eickhoff said. “Like I said, it’ll just take time to have more reps and get back in there to get used to it again.”
Veteran left-hander James Russell, in camp on a minor league contract, showed some savvy in the sixth inning of Tuesday’s game.
After third baseman Angelys Nina made errors on back-to-back plays to begin the inning, Russell patted the fellow non-roster player on the back and immediately induced an infield fly and back-to-back strikeouts to escape the frame with the scoreboard unharmed.
“That’s a sign of a major league pitcher,” Mackanin said. “When you can do something like that, boy, that’s special.”
Russell is one of the 15 healthy pitchers in camp competing for seven spots in the bullpen. The Phillies break camp a week from tomorrow (Wednesday, March 30).
“All the way to the end,” Mackanin said on making decisions. “We still haven't decided on two or three of the guys. It's a nice problem to have compared to what we've had in the past.”
There are four pitchers that are likely locks, barring health: veteran right-handed relievers David Hernandez and Andrew Bailey, left-hander Brett Oberholtzer, who entered camp in competition for the fifth starter job but has been pitching out of a relief role this week, and 2016 holdover Dalier Hinojosa, whom Mackanin considers a possible candidate to close games for the team.
Mackanin called Bailey the “front runner” for the closer’s job, even after the former two-time All-Star yielded three runs on four hits in the seventh inning of Tuesday’s game. Mackanin did add, however, that he'd like to see more pop in Bailey's fastball, which hovered around 90-MPH on Tuesday.
A half inning after making two errors, Nina laid a perfect bunt down the first base line to bring Emmanuel Burris home safely from third base. It was the Phillies third suicide or safety squeeze in four days.
“It's something we have to do,” Mackanin said. “We can't go toe-to-toe with the Blue Jays. We don't have the pop that they do. But we can manufacture runs. We've been working hard at it. It's paying off for the most part.”
• Cody Asche (right oblique strain) could “possibly” get into a game on Wednesday, Mackanin said following Tuesday’s 7-5 loss to the Twins. Asche, who has yet to play in a Grapefruit League game this spring, took batting practice at the Carpenter Complex in the morning. If he plays Wednesday, it would likely come in a minor league game in Clearwater.
• Right-hander Severino Gonzalez was optioned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley before Tuesday’s game.
• The Phillies Triple-A affiliate, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, announced that they will have a “Salute to Philadelphia Night” on Tuesday, June 10 with a unique twist: they will rename the team for the day. The 'Pigs will be called the “Cheesesteaks,” compete with a black-and-cheek wiz-colored uniform top and cap. It’s too bad they’re not coordinating with one of the Fresno Grizzlies “Taco Tuesday nights.” (Taco hat gets the slight edge over cheesesteak hat).
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