PHILADELPHIA -- In a first half when positive takeaways were scarce, the Phillies are finally seeing some of the promise from the focal point of their rebuild: young starting pitching.
Jerad Eickhoff, out since June 20 with an upper back strain, had a triumphant scoreless return in Sunday's 7-1 win over the Padres. It brought with it his first win of the season and a second consecutive day of encouraging starts from starters who figure to be a part of the long-term picture for the rebuilding club. (Saturday afternoon, Aaron Nola threw eight innings allowing just four hits and two runs.)
"The starters especially have been outstanding," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said.
Maybe the most positive note from Eickhoff's start is that his curveball, far and away his best pitch, was dominant. He struck out six batters with the hook and got seven swings and misses with it across the five innings, one shy of tying a career high. He rung up eight total, tying a season high.
"He had a really good curveball," Mackanin said. "That's his pitch and when he has that working for him and he can locate it, he's really good and that's what he did today."
Catcher Cameron Rupp said Eickhoff was "back to himself from last year" when the right-hander was the most reliable starter on the ballclub and posted a 3.65 ERA without missing a start. Eickhoff, 27, said the consistency with his curve was key Sunday.
In a season where the Phillies have learned hopeful future offensive cornerstones Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera more accurately resemble contributors, not stars, positive developments on the pitching side of the ball are almost mandatory. That has been, after all, the blueprint for the rebuild. Grow the pitching, buy the bats. In the first two months of the season, the Phillies held the second-highest rotation ERA at 5.33. Since then, their 3.93 ERA ranks sixth-best in the Majors.
"Absolutely," Eickhoff said when asked if the young starters' recent performances have been exciting. "Just watching what Nick Pivetta did, what Ben Lively has done, and Nola yesterday was just fun to watch. And guys just pounding the strike zone. That's what it's all about."
Just once in the last 20 games has a Phillies starter allowed more than four runs. With the exception of Jeremy Hellickson, that has all come from youthful rotation arms.
What began the season as a major deficiency, Phillies starters have begun lasting longer into games, dissipating stress -- both physical and mental -- brought onto both the rotation as a whole and the bullpen.
"When you compare our rotation to the rest of the league, I'd be willing to bet that we have just as many innings from our starters if not more than most of the league. These guys have been giving us innings," Mackanin said.
Entering play Sunday, the Phillies rotation ranked fourth in baseball in innings pitched since June. Before that point, in April and May, they threw the fourth-fewest innings.
"We may or may not have frontline, top-of-the-rotation starters but we've got a few guys that have a chance to be," Mackanin said.
Nola and Eickhoff back in their respective grooves give the Phillies the best chance at filling in the top of the rotation down the line. And because of that, Mackanin is looking forward to getting them back on the mound.
"I'm looking forward to the second half," he said.