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Phillies’ Jerad Eickhoff finally has a ‘great day’ with pain-free bullpen session

The last two seasons have been injury plagued for the former starter. He hopes Sunday's workout is a sign of things to come.

Jerad Eickhoff runs during spring-training workouts in Clearwater on Sunday.
Jerad Eickhoff runs during spring-training workouts in Clearwater on Sunday.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The small scar on Jerad Eickhoff’s right hand is just a little more than an inch long, almost perfectly blending in with the creases of his palm.

But it is large enough to serve as a reminder of everything Eickhoff faced last season — from an innocuous injury in spring training, to mysterious nerve damage that sent him around the country seeking answers, to finally pitching in the season’s final month — and of the challenges that lie ahead.

The 28-year-old right-hander, once a mainstay in the starting rotation, started just one game last season. The first five months of the season were so difficult, Eickhoff said, that a start against the Mets in an otherwise meaningless September game felt like the cap of a 200-inning season.

He underwent surgery shortly after the season to release the carpal tunnel that was to blame for the tingling in his fingertips that sidelined him for the summer. The pain was not present when Eickhoff threw five bullpen sessions earlier this winter, but it surfaced in January, shortly before Eickhoff was set to come to spring training.

He returned to his doctor, who did not believe Eickhoff needed another surgery but instead thinks Eickhoff can alleviate the pain by loosening the tissue with medication and therapy. It has so far worked and Eickhoff said he reported to spring training with “cautious optimism.”

And on Sunday morning -- on a pitching mound tucked next to the team’s spring-training ballpark -- Eickhoff added to that optimism. He threw 20 pain-free pitches to complete his first bullpen session since the setback. The tingling sensation did not return. It was a small victory.

“I had the rug pulled out from under me before,” Eickhoff said. “I’m kind of restraining myself with excitement. I’m emphasizing on taking it day to day and focusing on each task. Today was a great day.”

The Phillies did not sign a starting pitcher this winter and part of that was because of their confidence if a healthy Eickhoff. The price for a veteran starter -- such as the two-year, $34 million deal the Yankees gave to J.A. Happ -- was expensive. In 2016, his first full season, Eickhoff nearly pitched 200 innings and posted a 3.65 ERA. The next two were marred by injuries, so the Phillies clung to the 2016 version of Eickhoff after the pitcher had his offseason surgery.

But when the ailment returned, Eickhoff moved further out of the race for the final three rotation spots. Manager Gabe Kapler said Sunday it is too early to discuss if Eickhoff is competing this spring with Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin, and Vince Velasquez for the final spots in the rotation. The priority, Kapler said, is simply making sure Eickhoff is pain-free.

“He’s so well-liked, he’s such a good person that everyone is pulling for him,” Kapler said. “Everyone wanted the same thing: for him to come out of that bullpen healthy. Don’t worry about what comes next. Let’s keep him on track, healthy and strong.”

Eickhoff will throw a few more bullpen sessions and if the pain does not return, he will graduate to facing hitters. Grapefruit League games begin Friday and Eickhoff, if healthy, has time to see action this spring and show the Phillies that their faith in him was not in vain. Even if Eickhoff does not crack the rotation, he will provide valuable depth at triple A. The Phillies will need more than five starters this season.

“I can’t say that I have zero concern for Jerad, just because we had hoped that the procedure he had would have alleviated this entirely and it apparently did not,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “But I still feel really good about our pitching depth at the major-league level, our pitching depth at the minor leagues, and we have a lot of guys who are waiting in the wings at triple A.”

The only thing that mattered Sunday to Eickhoff was the 20 pitches he would throw. A group of pitchers surprised Eickhoff by leaving the clubhouse early to meet him near the mound. Kapler asked Pivetta why he was there so early. Pivetta was excited for Eickhoff, he told Kapler.

Eickhoff said he had to collect himself and took a few deep breaths to calm his nerves. “It culminated a little bit,” he said.

Eickhoff gripped the baseball with his right hand, holding it in his scarred palm. The 20 pitches were finished in just a few minutes. But it was enough for tangible progress. And that was enough for him.

“In the end, it’s going to make me better. It’s going to make me stronger,” he said. “I’m going to use this as fuel and fire going forward. It’s going to be great when it’s finally behind me.”