Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Jerad Eickhoff searches for 1st win

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Jerad Eickhoff searches for 1st win

Phillies (4-7) vs. Nationals (6-5)
1:35 p.m. on CSN and streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports app.

The Phillies broke a four-game losing skid after Cesar Hernandez's two-run homer propelled them to a victory Saturday afternoon. With the weekend series tied 1-1, Jerad Eickhoff will go toe to toe with Gio Gonzalez on Sunday as the Phils look to take their second straight series from the Nats.

Here are five things to know for the series finale.

1. Eickhoff searches for 1st win
Despite two quality starts to begin the season, Eickhoff is still without a win in 2017.

It follows a similar trend to last season. While Eickhoff was the team's most consistent and reliable starter in 2016, he had two one-month stretches where he wasn't able to pick up a win. Two games into this season, he has a sterling 1.98 ERA, but the Phillies have lost both his starts. He's even gone fairly deep into games (13 2/3 innings overall) and has struck out 13 batters. His five walks, including four vs. the Mets last time out, are a little off for the righty. But he's still only allowed eight hits this year. 

The 26-year-old righty has allowed a home run in both starts this season, yet he still hasn't given up more than three earned runs in a start since Aug. 18 last season. He faced the Nationals twice in 2016. Fitting with the trend, he produced quality starts in both games, but the Phillies lost each time. In two career starts at Nationals Park, he's gone 13 innings, struck out 15 batters and the Nats have scored just two runs. 

As a team, the Nationals haven't hit Eickhoff well. Adam Eaton and Jayson Werth have each hit homes runs off him, but the team as a whole has a .216/.259/.392 batting line. Star right fielder Bryce Harper is 1 for 9 vs. Eickhoff with six strikeouts.

2. Gonzalez dealing to start 2017
Last season was the worst full season of Gonzalez's career. The veteran lefty threw 177 1/3 innings and had a rotten 4.57 ERA. His ERA has gotten worse every season since his career-best in 2012. At age 26 that year, he tossed 199 1/3 innings with a 2.89 ERA and led the National League with 21 wins and a 9.3 strikeout per nine rate. Now he's 31 years old and firmly further down in the Nats' rotation.

But he's off to a fantastic start this season. He has 13 strikeouts in 13 innings and has a sterling 0.69 ERA. Talk about production. Gonzalez has still allowed plenty of hits (13) but just two walks. He beat the Cardinals while allowing two runs, one earned, over seven innings last time out. He's always walked a lot of guys, so seven innings with no walks is a big deal for the veteran lefty.

While Gonzalez won't keep up a 0.69 ERA for long, he tends to hold Phillies in check. Freddy Galvis has good numbers (two home runs, two doubles, nine hits in 35 ABs) off Gonzalez, but the roster as a whole has a paltry .204/.263/.296 line against him. This is one of the times the Phillies miss Darin Ruf. Ruf was 11 for 31 with three home runs, three doubles and eight walks off Gonzalez, tormenting him while in a Phillies uniform.

Last year, Gonzalez was 2-1 with a 1.37 ERA in four starts vs. the Phils and allowed just four earned runs in 26 1/3 innings. For his career, he's 10-6 with a 2.67 ERA over 20 starts vs. the Phillies. 

3. Bullpen diaries 
If you look at the overall numbers, the Phillies' bullpen has had a horrid start to this season. In 39 innings, the team has a 5.31 ERA, firmly in the bottom third of the league.

However, when you add context, the Phillies' pen seems a lot more reliable. First off, Adam Morgan -- who gave up seven runs and six homers in just six innings -- is back down in Triple A. Beyond Morgan, Jeanmar Gomez has had the worst performance of any Phillie this year with seven earned runs in 5 1/3 innings. While he's still on the team, he is unlikely to see much more high-leverage situations for a while after being removed from the closer role. 

So when you take those two players out, the bullpen has a 2.93 ERA. You can reduce it even further if you take out Joely Rodriguez' performance (same innings and runs as Gomez). This is all to say, the new back-end of the bullpen has the potential to be a force. No one is mistaking this Phillies bullpen for one with a mountain of depth. However, it still has three pitchers capable of performing in high-leverage situations.

The trio of Hector Neris, Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek have combined for 16 scoreless innings. The Phillies have had plenty of trouble getting it to the back of their bullpen with barely five innings per start from the rotation, yet it has to comfort Pete Mackanin to know he has reliable people ready to go. Last year, the Phillies' back-end of the 'pen was basically just Neris and Gomez and that fell apart when Gomez struggled in September.

After Joe Blanton gave up a two-run homer Saturday, the Nationals have a 6.29 bullpen ERA and only one reliever (Matt Albers) has had a scoreless April.

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Despite strong games this week, Maikel Franco is still in a slump to start the season. His batting line after Saturday is just .195/.261/.366. 

Nationals: With both Trea Turner and Stephen Drew on the disabled list, the Nationals have had to turn to Wilmer Difo. The second-year middle infielder is solid in the field but has struggled to produce at the plate this morning.

5. This and that
• With just two errors this season, the Phillies are tied for second fewest fielding miscues in baseball. Only the Royals with just one have been more efficient. The Nationals (nine) are tied for third most in baseball.

• Before Saturday's game, the Phillies had the third highest strikeout rate in all of baseball. The team had 92 strikeouts and had K'd in 24.5 percent of its plate appearances.

• The Nationals lead all of baseball with 26 doubles this year. Their only one on Saturday came from their starting pitcher, Tanner Roark.

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

BOX SCORE

A constant theme during the Phillies' playoff run from 2007-11 was that even when the offense was sputtering, it never felt like they were out of a game. That group of players picked up so many late hits and mounted so many comebacks that even a five-run deficit heading into the final three innings felt like a winnable game.

The 2017 Phillies are a much different, much less experienced, much less powerful team, but their late-game offense has been a surprisingly fun development this April.

The Phillies used back-to-back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning Sunday to pick up a 5-2 win over the Braves and a series sweep (see Instant Replay). Cesar Hernandez hit a go-ahead, two-run shot off hard-throwing reliever Arodys Vizcaino. Aaron Altherr followed with a solo shot on the next pitch. The Braves switched pitchers, then Odubel Herrera hit a solo homer of his own.

Just like that, ballgame.

The Phillies lead the majors with six home runs in the eighth inning. That's more than the than the Cubs, Red Sox, Rockies, Angels, Mariners, Pirates, White Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Giants and Astros have combined.

They've scored 14 runs in the eighth inning and 27 in innings 7-9. Both figures rank third-best in the National League behind only the Diamondbacks and Nationals.

Unexpected late-game heroics and unexpected power from some unlikely sources.

"It's always a bonus to have a team like that," manager Pete Mackanin said. "These guys pull for each other. We have a good bench, we have some interchangeable players that can step in and do a good job. ... They're fighters and it's good to see."

Hernandez continues to open eyes with his developing power. He has four home runs through 18 games after hitting six all of last season. He has more extra-base hits (nine) than Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Paul Goldschmidt and Robinson Cano, among many others.

And he's done it without sacrificing his eye at the plate and slap-hitting ability. Hernandez is hitting .338 through 80 at-bats.

Hernandez gained muscle over the winter and reported to spring training looking noticeably bigger, but Mackanin credits the power surge to a change in his swing plane.

"He had an uppercut swing," Mackanin said. "He worked underneath the ball, which made him a low-ball hitter. I think the fact that we convinced him to level out his swing and stay on top of the ball -- work above the ball and work your way down through the strike zone -- I think has not only given him more power but also (the ability) to hit more line drives and use the whole field."

Makes sense. Managers, hitting coaches and players talk all the time about how you don't hit a home run when you're trying to hit a home run, you hit one when you're thinking up the middle and catch the ball with the barrel.

Hernandez hasn't lofted more balls because he's trying to loft them, he's done it by getting stronger and developing a more consistent swing.

"He's an on-base guy and a leadoff hitter and now I'm starting to think of him as a cleanup hitter as well," Mackanin said jokingly. "It is nice. It's good to see. He's not trying to hit home runs. He's trying to hit line drives and when you work above the ball and level your swing out and you hit the bottom half of the ball, the ball is going to go up with a line-drive swing. Because of that, he's hitting more gaps and hitting for more power."

In a way, it's similar to what Herrera did last season, jumping from eight home runs as a rookie to 15 as a sophomore as he continued learning the strike zone, learning major-league pitchers and learning of his own capabilities.

"I love watching Cesar hit the ball," Herrera said. "He has a beautiful swing and he makes great contact on the ball. It's great to be behind him."

With Hernandez leading off and Herrera batting third, the top of the Phillies' lineup has gotten on base a ton. They've gotten a .384 on-base percentage from the 1-3 spots in the order. Just imagine how many additional runs the Phillies would have produced to this point if Maikel Franco or Tommy Joseph were hitting consistently.

"I like all three right there," Mackanin said. "I like Howie Kendrick, also. I'm anxious for him to get back (from the DL) and then we'll go from there. We've got some good things going. We've got a good bench. We've got Altherr, (Daniel) Nava, (Andres) Blanco. We've got (Andrew) Knapp who's doing a good job behind the plate. I think we're in pretty good shape that way."

It's not going to be an explosive, league-leading offense, but it's certainly a deeper offense than it was a year ago. An addition like Nava, for example, has proven to be underrated and pay early dividends. Remember, he was one of the last men chosen for the opening day roster. So far this April, he's succeeded in every role in which the Phillies have used him.

Despite not playing regularly, Nava has reached base in 16 of his first 31 plate appearances, something no first-year Phillie has done since Jeremy Giambi in 2002.

"Nava is really valuable to us," Mackanin said. "He's a part-time player that gives you good at-bats, quality at-bats. He works the count, obviously the first game of the season he showed us he's got power. Gap power and the occasional home run from both sides of the plate. 

"Watching a guy like that, you can't help but notice. If it was me and I was a free swinger, I'd go up to him and ask him, 'How do I tone it down a little bit?' He just doesn't get himself out."

Zach Eflin gets no decision, but tosses 7 crisp innings in Phillies' win

Zach Eflin gets no decision, but tosses 7 crisp innings in Phillies' win

BOX SCORE

The return on the Phillies' $13.5 million investment in Clay Buchholz was about as poor as it gets, but if it keeps leading to starts like Sunday's out of rotation replacement Zach Eflin, nobody inside or outside the organization will complain.

Eflin was in cruise control Sunday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, limiting the Braves to just one run on three hits over seven innings and keeping the Phillies in the game before their eighth-inning fireworks in their 5-2 win (see Instant Replay).

Eflin struck out only three batters but generated a lot of weak contact. There were six groundouts to first base and just as many soft pop-ups to the shallow outfield.

Whereas Buchholz's two outings with the Phillies resulted in 10 runs and 19 baserunners in 7 1/3 innings, Eflin's first two starts have yielded just three runs and nine baserunners in 12 innings.

"Just the other day we were talking about depth in the pitching rotation at Triple A and here is good evidence of what we have down there," a jovial Pete Mackanin said. "Eflin comes out of Triple A and pitches outstanding. That's a bonus for us.

"When he's got that bowling-ball sinker working, it's hard for a hitter not to worry about the inside part of the plate, which opens up the outer half."

Eflin worked quickly and kept the game moving. Eight of his 21 outs required two pitches or less.

"I felt really good today, I did a good job of getting ahead in the count and getting early contact, trusting my sinker and I stuck with that the whole game," Eflin said.

The lone run Eflin allowed was a seventh-inning solo home run by Matt Kemp, who broke his bat on a jam-job to left field his previous time up. The Phillies tied the game in the bottom half with three one-out singles, then exploded in the eighth inning with back-to-back-to-back homers by Cesar Hernandez, Aaron Altherr and Odubel Herrera. 

Just like that, the Phillies completed their first series sweep of the young season, sending the Braves packing with a 6-12 record. The Phils, back to .500 at 9-9, are off Monday before beginning a three-game series vs. Miami.

The Phillies were also 9-9 last season but got there in a much different way, winning a lot of low-scoring, one-run games. The offense has been better this April and the starting pitching is coming around.

Last year when the Phillies were 9-9, they had been outscored by 23 runs. This year, they've outscored their opponents by seven.

"It does feel different," Mackanin said. "Who would have thought Cesar would hit four home runs the whole year? But there are a lot of good things going on. We'll just go from here and see what happens. Again, the big thing for me is that inventory at Triple A when we have a pitcher like Eflin coming up."

Some good things are happening at Triple A, where three pitchers have already earned call-ups and another, Nick Pivetta, is 3-0 with a 0.95 ERA through three starts. He's struck out 24 while walking two. 

It's another illustration of how many of their recent trades the Phillies have won. 

Eflin was acquired in December 2014 for one season of a 36-year-old Jimmy Rollins. 

Pivetta was acquired from the Nationals two summers ago when the Phillies had no leverage with Jonathan Papelbon but found a meaningful return anyway. 

And Joely Rodriguez, who picked up his first major-league win Sunday, was the piece the Phillies got back from Pittsburgh for Antonio Bastardo.

"Joely Rodriguez has really stepped up and done a great job for us," Mackanin said. "We originally considered him more of a long guy, but he is starting to prove to me that he can get big outs late in the game against certain hitters and he got a couple of big outs (today)."