DENVER — The thought entered Jerad Eickhoff's mind this summer as his baseball career was put on hold while he crisscrossed the country trying to determine what was causing his fingers to go numb when he pitched. Specialist after specialist came up empty when they tried to explain the injury that derailed Eickhoff's season.
And Eickhoff, who began his career as the definition of durability, was left to wonder if he would ever pitch again.
"Any injury you have, whether it's a weird nerve injury that they can't really explain or a hamstring injury, every player, if they're being real with themselves, has that thought cross their mind," Eickhoff said. "But it's how long you let that fester and let that sit. For me, it was very short-lived. It was maybe a half second. As quick as it came in, it was gone. It was back to the work that I had to put in to get back and keep pushing through."
Eickhoff pushed through his injury, returned to the mound after a three-month layoff, and rejoined the Phillies earlier this month as a relief pitcher. Returning was always his goal, Eickhoff said, as he pitched in Clearwater, Reading, and Lehigh Valley. Working back to the majors– and pitching through that sensation in his fingertips — was something to be proud of. But the real reward for that work may come in the season's final week.
Manager Gabe Kapler said Eickhoff could "potentially" start one of the season's final games.
The pitcher entered spring training locked into the starting rotation before he was troubled by a back injury. When his back injury healed, his fingertips flared up. It was the most trying season of Eickhoff's career. And it would be fitting if he ended it in the starting rotation.
"A start would mean absolutely everything," Eickhoff said. "Given what this year's been like, given on-the-field, off-the-field stuff, it would probably be a pretty emotional thing. We'll see what happens, but I'd be ecstatic."
Eickhoff's absence granted the Phillies the chance to take extended looks at Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, and Zach Eflin. The three young pitchers showed both promise and flaws. Next season's rotation could be augmented by a free-agent starter. Everything feels uncertain outside of Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta.
Eickhoff made 33 starts two seasons ago. He will likely report to Clearwater with a shot at the rotation. The biggest hinge will be his health. He said he feels good and the nerve damage has "gotten a lot better." He will revisit the injury this offseason, but until then he will "just kind of deal with it." And he hopes he has the chance to deal with it one more time this season.
"It would be tremendous for him," Kapler said. "I don't know if there's a guy that the clubhouse pulls more for than Jerad Eickhoff. I think he's pretty deeply cared for and he worked his butt off to get back to this position.
"He has the same work ethic every single day, no matter if he hasn't pitched in a long while or if he's getting the ball and he knows it. It's a pretty special character and a pretty special human being. Everybody is rooting for him to finish strong."