ATLANTA - Jerad Eickhoff, his hands on his hips, stood just off the mound Wednesday night and watched a challenge go unfulfilled. Fireworks rocketed over the SunTrust Park scoreboard and a fountain shot like a geyser as the pitcher's promising night suddenly unraveled in a 14-1 loss to the Braves.
Eickhoff lasted just five innings in his first start since manager Pete Mackanin and pitching coach Bob McClure summoned him and Aaron Nola into a meeting and demanded that they pitch better. The pitchers, who both have struggled this season, felt a meeting was near. The young pitchers - whom the Phillies need to emerge this season as pieces of the future - were urged to rediscover the success they had earlier in their careers.
Nola responded with eight strong innings Tuesday. Eickhoff allowed four runs, three of which were earned. He struck out four, walked one, and allowed four hits. The most crushing blow was the three-run homer in the fifth by Dansby Swanson that set off the fireworks and helped snap the Phillies' four-game winning streak. It was the team's worst loss of the season.
"There's things to take out of each start especially today," Eickhoff said. "I did a really good job except for the one pitch. That's the most frustrating part. You look at the scoreboard and see three runs from that homer. That's not any indication of how things have went."
Eickhoff was the team's most reliable starter last season. He pitched six innings or more in 23 of his 33 starts. This season has been different. Eickhoff has pitched fewer than six innings in seven of his last nine starts. He has a 5.15 ERA and has allowed seven runs in his last 72/3 innings. The Phillies miss his reliability.
"It's happening to me because I can take it. I'm one of those guys that can handle it," Eickhoff said. "I'm going to keep pushing on like I always do. I'm as stubborn as the next guy. I'm going to keep working like I always do. Honestly, this felt like a building block. Out of the windup, I felt really good. Bullpen, I felt really good. Things were flowing. I was executing pitches. For one pitch to dampen that, I'm not going to let that happen."
The season's final four months will be used to discover what the Phillies have in Eickhoff. He was too steady last season to be cast off because of a tough stretch. This season is about determining who will be with the Phillies when they contend again. Eickhoff is certainly in that picture and he still has time to meet the manager's challenge.
Eickhoff looked to be on his way to answering that challenge when he got 10 straight outs (including a pickoff) after giving up a leadoff single in the first inning. Trouble then arrived. The Braves tagged him for a run in the fourth inning before Maikel Franco started the fifth by misplaying a sharp grounder from Tyler Flowers. Howie Kendrick slipped in left field as he tried to retrieve it, and Flowers, who should have been out, ran all the way to third. Rio Ruiz walked and Swanson crushed his slider for a three-run homer to left. The fireworks were fired and Eickhoff's night was sealed.
"Eickhoff didn't really pitch badly," Mackanin said. "He just hung a slider to Swanson. That one pitch. If we were down two or three I would have left him in, but we had to make up four runs, so I had to do it."
Michael Saunders, who started in place of Aaron Altherr, went 0 for 3. He's batting .213 this season with an .639 OPS in 183 at-bats. The Phillies signed him to a $9 million one-year contract, hoping they could move him at the trade deadline. That is unlikely. Simply finding playing time for Saunders continues to be challenging.
Kendrick and Andrew Knapp went hitless.
Odubel Herrera hit his 20th double of the season, which is tied for the major-league lead. He had two in the game and has doubled in five straight games. He could be the third player in team history to double in six straight. Herrera is the first Phillies player since Chase Utley in 2007 to have 10 straight hits that went for extra bases.
The bullpen blew the game open after Eickhoff's exit. Adam Morgan, who grew up nearby, allowed four runs on three hits in 11/3 innings. Joely Rodriguez, who was steady for a two-week stretch in April before his season spiraled, allowed three runs to score that were charged to Morgan. Rodriguez was designated for assignment after the game.
Luis Garcia allowed five runs in the eighth inning, putting the game even farther out of reach and forcing Mackanin to use Andres Blanco to record the final out of the inning. Blanco has now played every position in his career except catcher and center field. He was the first Phillies position player to pitch since Jeff Francoeur in 2015.
Blanco threw eight pitches, including a 74-mph "heater" that was crushed like a batting-practice fastball for a two-run homer by Matt Adams. The fireworks erupted again, punctuating an embarrassing night for the visitors.