PHILADELPHIA -- The first pitch Jerad Eickhoff threw as a Major League starter in 394 days landed for a called strike. The second pitch made Ronald Acuna Jr. chase way out of the zone for a foul ball. And the third, a 77-mph curveball, made the Braves' rookie phenom drop to one knee as he flailed at a ball he had no chance at even tipping.
That miniscule sample was enough to remind Philadelphia of what it once had in Eickhoff -- and what it might still have if he can move past this season nearly lost entirely to a series of frustrating injuries. That was why, after a 10-2 loss to Atlanta at Citizens Bank Park on Friday night, Eickhoff stood in the middle of the Phillies' clubhouse filled with moving boxes -- clad in a red shirt, blue jeans and the "P" hat he had waited so long to wear -- and fought back tears.
"I just wanted to be the guy that goes out there, and we'd lost eight straight, I just wanted to be the guy to go out there and, you know, stop it," Eickhoff said. "That's who I am as a pitcher. That's who I strive to be.
"And everything else on top of it, the year, the trials, just everything that culminated walking off, I couldn't really contain it in the dugout. They didn't have to give me a start. [General manager Matt] Klentak, the staff, this was not expected. This was not -- I didn't take this for granted. This was a gift, an opportunity. I'm just so fortunate and lucky enough to be able to have it. What a day."
It was a day that, after Eickhoff's exit, featured seven relievers that combined to allow seven earned runs and 14 hits. The offense logged two hits before the ninth inning and the defense committed as many errors. The Phillies ensured a sixth consecutive losing season despite being 15 games above .500 on Aug. 5, confirming what was all but promised by a winless road trip and now a 15-34 record since that day.
"We didn't play well enough to win tonight's baseball game and we've been playing terrible baseball," manager Gabe Kapler said. "That's why we've lost a lot of games, not because we haven't fought or because anybody quit."
That argument has to include Eickhoff. His leadoff strikeout of Acuna sparked a seven-pitch first inning. Two hits to open the second put runners in scoring position, but Eickhoff escaped the jam by striking out the side with punchouts of Tyler Flowers, Charlie Culberson and Mike Foltynewicz. That streak rolled into the third when Eickhoff whiffed Acuna, Ender Inciarte and Freddie Freeman.
After Eickhoff froze Nick Markakis to begin the fourth for his seventh consecutive strikeout, Johan Camargo broke the streak with a home run that just barely cleared the right-field wall. Ozzie Albies followed that with a single, and Kapler had seen enough. He yanked his starter after just 56 pitches even though Kapler said pregame he was willing to give Eickhoff some rope.
"It would have been irresponsible to push him significantly beyond what he was ready for," Kapler said.
Eickhoff finished with eight strikeouts in 3 1/3 innings, including the seven in a row that tied a franchise record. His curveball, which Kapler called "one of the best curveballs we've seen from anybody all season long," induced nine swings and misses, the best count of Eickhoff's career.
"It was an out-of-body experience," Eickhoff said. "But I wasn't alone. I wasn't alone out there."
The strong outing reminded fans of when Eickhoff might have been the most promising piece of the Phillies' rotation behind Aaron Nola. The club was happy to receive him in the trade that sent Cole Hamels to the Rangers in 2015. Eickhoff posted a 3.65 ERA in 197 1/3 innings in 2016. But injuries defined a 2017 campaign in which he saw his ERA reach 4.71 before nerve irritation in his pitching fingers forced Eickhoff to be shut down for September.
With rest, the issue dissipated. Eickhoff entered Spring Training healthy. A right lat strain put him on the disabled list to start the season, but that happens to pitchers sometimes. No big deal -- until the tingling in his fingers returned during a rehab start in late May.
An arduous road to Friday's start followed. He saw specialists across the country to diagnose what was wrong. A scare of thoracic outlet syndrome threatened surgery before doctors concluded it was carpal tunnel syndrome that plagued Eickhoff. He received two cortisone shots. Through bullpen sessions, simulated games, eight rehab starts and two innings of relief earlier this month, Eickhoff found a way to pitch through any lingering discomfort.
"That guy has battled for a long, long, long, long time," Rhys Hoskins said. "The epitome of a professional work ethic. Battled through a lot of unknown. It was really, really cool to see him go out and not skip a beat."
Eickhoff's work paid off Friday. But it will not stop.
"I'm looking forward to just continuing the work," Eickhoff said. "I'm going to celebrate this opportunity, this gift to go out there and pitch, and continue to put in work."
Before Eickhoff, the only other Phillies pitchers to strike out seven straight batters were Steve Carlton on May 9, 1981, vs. San Diego and Curt Schilling on Aug. 26, 1996, at San Francisco.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Hoskins slugged a one-out solo shot to left-center field in the ninth. The home run, Hoskins' 34th of the season, gave him the most homers by a Phillies slugger since 2009, when Ryan Howard had 45, Jayson Werth had 36 and Raul Ibanez had 34.
HE SAID IT
"If you watched Rhys Hoskins play late in that game, there was absolutely no quit. This is what championship-caliber players do. The game's out of hand. He's diving for balls. He's throwing runners out at the plate. He's dirty from head to toe. That is fighting. That's how you go all the way through the final bell, through the finish line, whatever you want to call it. He demonstrated what a championship-caliber player in Philadelphia looks like. You don't become a leader by hitting 30 home runs and driving in 100 runs. You become a leader by demonstrating to your teammates that you never stop fighting no matter what the score of the game is, no matter where you are in the season. I think everybody in the dugout was inspired by Rhys Hoskins tonight." -- Kapler
The Phillies' penultimate game of 2018, set for 7:05 p.m. ET on Saturday at Citizens Bank Park, pits Nola (16-6, 2.45 ERA) against Braves right-hander Anibal Sanchez (7-6, 2.96 ERA). Nola has put himself in the National League Cy Young Award conversation with a dominant season, but he has allowed nine home runs in September. Sanchez picked up the win by throwing five innings of one-run ball when the two squared off in Atlanta last weekend.