Make no mistake - when Adam Eaton watched Chase Utley's three-run home run sail into the second deck during the fifth inning of the Phillies' series finale against the Rockies on Wednesday night, he realized the situation at hand.
After a frustrating first couple of months that saw him rack up three losses and seven no-decisions, the veteran righthander could finally feel a victory in his grasp.
"I was nervous, to be honest with you," said Eaton, who went on to pitch a perfect sixth inning before Phillies manager Charlie Manuel replaced him with Ryan Madson for the top of the seventh. "It was a weird feeling."
The Phillies now hope that Eaton can build on that feeling, which comes on the heels of two of his most productive starts of the season.
In 13 innings over his last two starts, Eaton has allowed just four runs, the fewest among any back-to-back starts this season. Though he pitched well in his first three starts, pitching at least six innings in each of them, his next six appearances brought back memories of the pitcher who posted a 6.29 ERA after signing a 3-year, $24.5 million contract in the offseason.
From April 20 through May 17, his ERA was a robust 6.59, and opponents had a .400 on-base percentage against him.
So what is the difference between that pitcher and the one who has appeared on the mound the past two starts?
For one, he hasn't allowed the big innings that have plagued him throughout his time with the Phillies. According to Manuel, he has avoided those innings by improving his command.
"When he gives up the big inning, he makes mistakes, he falls behind in the count and he gets the ball in the good part of the plate to hit the ball," Manuel said. "That's one of his problems. His command has been his problem for me since last year."
Eaton has said throughout the season that he feels better than he did last year, when shoulder and back problems contributed to his struggles. The key now will be continuing to prove it through results.
"I haven't pitched that great thus far. I've had a handful of good games, but before I was getting that one big inning that would really hurt us," said Eaton, who is 1-3 with 4.99 ERA. "It seems like the last couple starts I was able to minimize that. I feel better about where I'm at as opposed to last year, but at the same time, there is still room for improvement and I'm looking forward to doing it."
Kris Benson will make his first official minor league appearance on Monday against Tampa. The righthander, who is attempting to work his way back from shoulder surgery last March, is expected to throw about 75 pitches during the game. The Phillies still don't have a definitive timetable on when he might be ready to compete for a spot in the team's rotation. Benson, who signed a minor league contract with the Phillies in February, threw 75 pitches in an extended spring training game on Tuesday. *