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.

Best of MLB: Royals storm back in 9th inning for win over Blue Jays

Best of MLB: Royals storm back in 9th inning for win over Blue Jays

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Whit Merrifield hit a two-run, two-out double that capped a four-run rally in the ninth inning, and the Kansas City Royals beat the Toronto Blue Jays 5-4 on Friday night to reach .500 for the first time since April.

With their 10th win in 12 games, the Royals improved to 36-36. They were 6-6 before play on April 20, then went on a nine-game losing streak that night and dropped as low as 10-20, seven games out of first place. They trail AL Central-leading Cleveland by three games.

Toronto took a 2-1 lead into the ninth and extended it when Josh Donaldson and Justin Smoak hit RBI singles off Joakim Soria (4-2) (see full recap).

Dodgers cruise past Rockies for 8th straight win
LOS ANGELES -- Yasiel Puig homered and left-hander Alex Wood kept his record perfect as the streaking Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the NL West rival Colorado Rockies 6-1 on Friday night for their eighth consecutive victory.

The Dodgers have won 14 of their last 15 games. They have scored at least six runs in seven consecutive games.

Wood (8-0) allowed one run in six innings. He gave up only three hits and walked two, retiring his last 10 batters.

The Dodgers have homered in 15 consecutive games, tied for fourth-longest streak in club history. The last time they managed it was in 1977. Their record is 24 consecutive games with a home run.

Rookie left-hander Kyle Freeman (8-4) allowed five runs and a career-high 10 hits and three walks in six innings (see full recap).

Torreyes hits walk-off single to lift Yanks over Rangers
NEW YORK -- Ronald Torreyes hit a game-winning single with two outs in the 10th inning after midnight, and the New York Yankees edged the Texas Rangers 2-1 on a rainy Friday night for just their second win in 10 games.

Brett Gardner lined a tying home run with one out in the New York ninth off closer Matt Bush. After Chasen Shreve (2-1) escaped a bases-loaded jam in the top of the 10th, Torreyes kept the Yankees atop the AL East.

Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka kept it scoreless into the late innings in the first major league meeting between the Japanese stars (see full recap).

Mark Leiter Jr. picks up 1st big-league win as Phillies cool off Diamondbacks

Mark Leiter Jr. picks up 1st big-league win as Phillies cool off Diamondbacks

BOX SCORE

PHOENIX -- The clubhouse was beginning to clear and still the star of the game had not yet emerged from the shower.

"He's in there cleaning the guacamole and mayo out of his hair," Cameron Rupp said with a laugh.

Eventually Mark Leiter Jr. made it out of the shower and over to his locker where equipment man Phil Sheridan presented him with three game balls, souvenirs from not only his first big-league start but his first big-league win, as well.

"It's something I'll never forget," the 26-year-old right-hander from Toms River, N.J., said pitching six shutout innings to backbone the Phillies' 6-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on Friday night (see Instant Replay).

"I’ll be honest, I was probably more excited for this than I was for my major-league debut. To go out there and contribute to a win is what I was hoping to do."

Leiter, a 22nd-round draft pick by the Phillies in 2013, had never made it onto the 40-man roster until the Phils needed a reliever in mid-April and gave him a shot after he'd gotten off to a good start at Triple A. He spent six weeks in the majors and made 12 relief appearances before being sent back to Triple A the first weekend of June.

Leiter worked as a starter during his time back at Triple A. He pitched six shutout innings against Syracuse in his last start and got the call to come back up when Jerad Eickhoff went on the disabled list with a back strain earlier this week.

Leiter's return assignment was not easy: The Diamondbacks are one of the best hitting clubs in the majors and the best on their home turf. They entered the game scoring 6.48 runs per game at home and with an .886 OPS, both major-league bests.

None of that fazed Leiter.

"In my opinion, this is the big leagues and it doesn’t matter who the lineup is," he said. "They all have the ability to hit and hit well. They’re all big-leaguers and they've earned their right to be big-leaguers. I was just trying to pitch to the team you're facing that day."

Leiter trusted his low-90s fastball and commanded it well. He mixed in his secondary stuff and kept the D-backs off-balance with his splitter. He scattered three hits, walked one and struck out five. He showed no fear.

"Great performance," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He made it look easy. He made a lot of good hitters look bad with his split. For him to come up and do that to a real good hitting team was outstanding."

Leiter's dad, Mark Sr., pitched for the Phillies in 1997 and 1998. He made the trip in from New Jersey to watch his son's first big-league start.

"I guess they found him on TV," Leiter said. "That's what they were telling me. I'm sure he wasn't too pleased they found him because he was probably stressed out. But I think it was probably worth him coming out here. He's probably happy."

How could he not be?

Leiter's teammates were definitely happy.

They treated Leiter to a raucous postgame dousing that included as many different condiments as could be found in the clubhouse dining room. One laughing player had a bottle of ketchup in his hands. Another had a squeeze bottle of honey.

And then there was the guacamole and mayo that Rupp mentioned.

"In his first major-league start, to come up here and do that in what is known as a good hitters’ park - that proves Mark is pretty strong between the ears," Tommy Joseph said. "He's been one of those under-the-radar guys that people have doubted, but his mentality and ability to prepare are second to none."

Joseph played a big role in the win, smacking a two-run homer in the ninth inning to give the Phillies some breathing room. Maikel Franco also had a big home run and Freddy Galvis contributed an important triple that led to a Phillies' run in the first inning.

The Phils still have the worst record in the majors at 24-48, but they've won two in a row, both on the back of good starting pitching performances. Aaron Nola pitched 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball on Thursday.

And Leiter delivered on Friday.

"It's good to see those back-to-back," Mackanin said.