Phillies prospect Tom Eshelman thriving after years of tutelage from older brother

Phillies prospect Tom Eshelman thriving after years of tutelage from older brother

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The brothers were born eight years apart — the older one a basketball junkie who moonlighted for a time as a pitcher, the younger one forever smitten by the summer game.

Growing up in Carlsbad, California, just north of San Diego, the older brother would fire pitches off a cinder-block wall next to the family’s garage – the wall that always had an upright rectangle scrawled upon it, representative of a strike zone.

In time, the younger brother would make use of the same wall. At that point he dreamed of being a shortstop, but eventually, he too gravitated to the mound. And his older sibling — indeed, his only sibling — would see some random Padre or Dodger pitcher on TV and immediately repair to a nearby Little League field, his brother in tow, to see if the kid could master some mechanical quirk of the big leaguer.

Always and forever, the older man serving as his brother’s keeper.

The result being that all these years later, the kid in question — Tom Eshelman — hopes to become a keeper of another kind with the Phillies.

The 22-year-old right-hander is 4-0 with a 1.38 ERA for Triple-A Lehigh Valley — his most recent victory a 12-1 domination of Buffalo on Monday in which he surrendered that lone run on five hits over seven innings, while striking out six. He didn’t walk a batter, but then again, he seldom does; command has always been his calling card.

Before that, he was named International League Player of the Month in May. Before that, he went 3-0 with a 3.10 ERA at Double-A Reading, leading to his promotion on May 8.

And way, way before that, the aforementioned older brother, Sam, helped bring out the best in him.

It should probably come as no surprise that Sam now teaches middle-school English, or that he just completed his first year as the varsity hoops coach at Carlsbad High, the brothers’ alma mater. He said on the phone Tuesday afternoon that his baseball knowledge was “rudimentary” back in the day, and called his work with Tom “an opportunity to experiment around a little bit — teaching and coaching and seeing how different things would work.”

Sam’s interest could almost be described as paternal. But it was not, he insists, Pavlovian.

Which brings us to the shock collar.

Two years ago Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times profiled the younger Eshelman, and mentioned the time Sam looped such a collar around his brother’s neck. Maybe, Foster wrote, that was the reason Tom became such a chronic strike thrower; his brother activated the thing every time he missed the zone.

The reference appeared to be tongue-in-cheek, but on Tuesday both brothers felt compelled to clarify things anyway.

“That story kind of got turned around a little bit,” Tom said before a game against Buffalo was rained out. “The whole bark-collar thing, that wasn’t true.”

Sam called it “a childhood prank between brothers,” a case where they were “just messing around in the back yard, brothers being brothers.”

“That got misrepresented as a training method,” he added, “which it wasn’t.” 

Sam gave up baseball before high school, choosing instead to concentrate on basketball, the same sport the boys’ dad, Dave, had played all the way through junior college. (Dave now runs his own business, while his wife Rosemary is a school administrator.)

Tom, a self-described “rebel,” plotted a different course.

“He was more so committed to just baseball, and he really loved the game,” Sam said. “And he took off running with it.”

But, again, seldom walking anybody. That has been a constant. It’s partially because of Sam’s help, partially because Tom gained a better understanding of his craft while doubling as a catcher in high school, partially because other pitching coaches — a freelance guy named Dominic Johnson in San Diego County, and Jason Dietrich at Cal State-Fullerton — worked with him along the way.

Eshelman issued exactly 18 bases on balls in 376.1 innings over his three seasons at Fullerton, while going 28-11 with a 1.65 ERA and 321 strikeouts. That led the Astros to draft him in the second round in June 2015.

Six months later they sent him to Philadelphia as part of the Ken Giles trade, and in his first year in the Phillies organization, he went 9-7 with a 4.25 ERA while splitting time between Clearwater and Reading.

“He wasn’t satisfied with where he was at,” Sam said. “He worked hard to put himself in position to succeed.” 

Tom is now fully healthy, after seeing his 2016 season cut short by an appendectomy. His fastball, clocked in the low 90s, has a little more movement, his slider a little more bite. IronPigs manager Dusty Wathan, who also had the 6-3, 210-pound Eshelman in Double-A last year, added that the young right-hander has a better understanding of the tighter strike zone seen in the high minors, and that he is hiding the ball better during his delivery.

“He breaks more bats than anybody I’ve seen, the last couple years,” Wathan said. “It’s five or six a night, which is impressive. People say he doesn’t strike many guys out, which is true, but if you’re breaking five or six bats a night, they’re not swinging and missing, but they’re definitely not hitting it where they want.”

Eshelman has, in fact, struck out a pedestrian 31 in 45.2 innings.

He has walked just four.

As for Sam, he streams his brother’s games from afar and keeps in touch.

“As much as I can, I try to help him with the mental side of things — just playing the big-brother role,” he said. “It’s all out of love.”

And all with the idea of making him a keeper.

Henderson Alvarez solid as audition with Phillies continues in loss to Braves

Henderson Alvarez solid as audition with Phillies continues in loss to Braves

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — It had been three years to the day since Henderson Alvarez had notched a pitching victory in the major leagues. Back on Sept. 23, 2014, while pitching for the Miami Marlins in a season in which he made the National League All-Star team, he beat the Phillies with 7 2/3 shutout innings.
 
A shoulder injury limited Alvarez to just four starts the next season. He did not pitch in 2016 and was forced to show his wares in the Independent Atlantic League before latching on with the Phillies in late August.
 
The Phils were looking for some pitching depth to get through the season, but Alvarez didn't care about the reason. He was happy for the audition in Triple A and the call to the majors this month.
 
Alvarez's long road back from surgery put him on the mound at SunTrust Park, the new home of the Atlanta Braves, on Saturday night, exactly three years after his last big-league win. It would have been pretty sweet for the 27-year-old right-hander to come out of the assignment with a win — and he was in line to get it before the bullpen let a late lead get away in a 4-2 loss to the Braves (see observations).
 
"It is what it is," Alvarez said, shrugging after the game. "That's the way baseball is sometimes. You have to make every single out. There are things you cannot control. You just go out there and try your best."
 
Alvarez pitched five shutout innings and left with a 2-0 lead thanks to an RBI double by Rhys Hoskins and another run that scored on a passed ball.
 
"He pitched through five innings, got through it and didn't give up a run," manager Pete Mackanin said. "His ball had some movement and he changed speeds."
 
The bullpen could not hold the lead. Newcomer Kevin Siegrist gave up a solo homer to Rio Ruiz in the sixth inning on a 1-2 breaking ball that registered 69 mph on the radar gun. Two innings later, Luis Garcia was tagged for three runs as the Braves tied the game and took the lead.
 
Up and down the roster, the Phillies are in audition mode. Siegrist, a waiver claim from St. Louis, is looking to stick with the club as a lefty out of the bullpen. Ditto for Adam Morgan, who has been sensational over the last couple of months. He racked up another scoreless inning in this game and has allowed just two runs in his last 23 innings, dating to Aug. 2. Garcia has been auditioning toward the back of the bullpen and performed well. He had not allowed an earned run in his last 12 1/3 innings before this outing.
 
Garcia allowed three hits and three runs. Dansby Swanson singled home the tying run after Garcia fell behind in the count and had to pump fastballs with a man on second, and pinch-hitter Johan Camargo broke the tie with a two-out, two-run double to right-center.
 
"When you're pitching in a clutch situation, you can't fall behind hitters," Mackanin said. "You’ve got to get ahead. I think he threw five consecutive fastballs to Swanson. He tried to get a strike and couldn't do it. And you have to do it to be successful. You cannot get behind the hitters.
 
"It all comes down to getting clutch hits, making clutch plays and making clutch pitches. We're looking to win a World Series. You've got to be clutch."
 
The Phillies could have used a clutch hit or two to pad their early lead. In one big situation, they had the bases loaded against Braves starter Julio Teheran with two outs in the seventh and Odubel Herrera grounded out to second base on Teheran's last pitch of the night.
 
Herrera is hitless in the first two games of the series after hitting in each of the first 13 games (at a .434 clip) between the two teams this season.
 
It's not clear where Alvarez fits into the Phillies' future — or even if he does. He could make one more start over the final week of the season or he could finish in the bullpen. It does not seem likely the Phillies would keep him on the 40-man roster all winter, but it's not difficult to envision the club trying to bring him back on a minor-league deal where he could provide organizational depth and continue to get stronger post-surgery. Several teams will probably have interest in doing that.
 
Whatever happens, Alvarez had to feel good about his work Saturday night. Though he did not get his win, it was a step in the right direction on the comeback trail.
 
"It's been a roller-coaster," he said. "I just have to keep working hard."

Best of MLB: Bruce Maxwell 1st player to kneel during anthem; Yanks clinch playoff berth

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Associated Press

Best of MLB: Bruce Maxwell 1st player to kneel during anthem; Yanks clinch playoff berth

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Bruce Maxwell of the Oakland Athletics has become the first major league baseball player to kneel during the national anthem.

Maxwell dropped to a knee just outside Oakland's dugout on Saturday before a game against the Texas Rangers, adopting a protest started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in response to police treatment of blacks. Maxwell's teammates stood in a line next to him. Teammate Mark Canha, who is white, put his right hand on one of Maxwell's shoulders.

The Athletics released a statement on Twitter shortly after the anthem, saying they "respect and support all of our players' constitutional rights and freedom of expression" and "pride ourselves on being inclusive."

Major League Baseball also issued a statement, saying it has "a longstanding tradition of honoring our nation prior to the start of our games" but that "we also respect that each of our players is an individual with his own background, perspectives and opinions (See full story).

Yankees clinch postseason berth by beating Blue Jays 
TORONTO -- One year into a rebuild, the New York Yankees are back in the playoffs.

Greg Bird, among the new generation of Baby Bombers, hit a three-run homer that led New York over the Toronto Blue Jays 5-1 on Saturday to clinch no worse than a wild card.

"I feel like our motto in the offseason was: `We're going to surprise people,'" Bird said. "Obviously, we had a good spring, but we knew that wasn't the real deal. We came out and played our game the whole year, and I feel like we showed people."

Sonny Gray (10-11), among New York's midseason reinforcements, allowed one run and four hits in six innings as the Yankees won for the 11th time in 14 games and at 86-68 matched their season high of 18 games over .500.

"I didn't know exactly what we were going to be this year, but when I saw the way these kids were playing in spring training and the depth of our talent, it got me really excited and I thought it was possible," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

Chase Headley reached base three times to help the Yankees reach the postseason for the 53rd time in franchise history. The Los Angeles Dodgers are second with 31. 

Lindor's 33rd homer leads Indians over Mariners 
SEATTLE -- Now that he's set a Cleveland record for home runs by a middle infielder, Francisco Lindor would rather remember 2017 for a far bigger accomplishment.

Lindor led off the game with his 33rd home run, and the Indians routed the Seattle Mariners 11-4 Saturday for their 28th victory in 30 games.

"It's cool. Something that'll be there for a long time," Lindor said, "but I'm just focusing on trying to win. When you focus on winning, those things happen."

Carlos Carrasco (17-6) matched teammate Cory Kluber and Boston's Chris Sale for the most wins in the AL, allowing one run and six hits in 5 2/3 innings. Yan Gomes homered twice and had four RBIs, and Jose Ramirez homered and drove in four runs.

Cleveland, which set the AL record with a 22-game winning streak this month, matched the 1884 Providence Grays for the best big league record over a 30-game span at 28-2. The Indians (97-58) lead Houston (95-59) for AL home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Lindor, a 23-year-old shortstop, homered on the eighth pitch from Andrew Moore (1-5) and surpassed the 32 home runs hit by second baseman Joe Gordon in 1948, the last year Cleveland won the World Series. 

Red Sox move closer to AL East title with 5-0 win over Reds
CINCINNATI --  The Red Sox took another step toward a division title, putting up another shutout that ended with a feel-good moment for their manager.

Mitch Moreland ended his long slump with a three-run homer, Eduardo Rodriguez pitched three-hit ball into the eighth inning, and Boston beat the Cincinnati Reds 5-0 on Saturday.

Boston has won 13 of 16, holding a four-game lead over the Yankees with eight to play. The Red Sox are trying to win back-to-back AL East titles for the first time since divisional realignment in 1969. They've got their best record of the season at 90-64, reaching 90 wins for the second year in a row.

It ended with a ninth inning that was unlike anything manager John Farrell has experienced. His son, Luke, relieved for the Reds, giving them a special moment in a competitive situation.

"It was somewhat surreal," he said. "Very proud. You're standing there looking through a netting in the dugout and you think you're maybe watching him throw back in Little League, in high school. To see it happen on a major league mound - a special day, a special inning."

The reliever walked two in a scoreless inning and glanced back at the Boston dugout, momentarily removing his cap, as he headed for the Reds dugout.