Phillies-Blue Jays 5 things: Toronto susceptible to Jerad Eickhoff's new favorite pitch


Phillies (29-34) at Blue Jays (35-30)
7:07 p.m. on CSN

A deflating ninth-inning collapse cost the Phillies a chance at a win Sunday and resulted in the Nationals' second sweep over them in as many weeks.

Now the Phils are on to Toronto. Let's hope everyone remembered their passports:

1. The long road back
After starting the season 0-4, the Phillies had just one losing streak longer than two games in their next 45. The avoidance of a prolonged skid kept them afloat and over .500.

But things began to fall apart at the end of May. It wasn't surprising given the quality of competition the Phils faced. They lost two of three to the Tigers, all three to the Cubs, all three to the Nationals, split a four-gamer with the Brewers, dropped two of three to the Cubs and three more to the Nats. 

The Phillies are 5-17 since May 20 and have gone 0-6-1 in their last seven series.

Unfortunately, this slide has the chance to continue this week with four games against the Blue Jays. The schedule lightens up a bit after that with four games against the Diamondbacks (28-37) and three with the Twins (19-43) before the Phillies head to San Francisco.

2. Scouting the Jays
Toronto disappointed to start the season, particularly at the plate, but has gotten on track of late, winning 13 of 18. The Blue Jays are coming off three straight wins over the Orioles, scoring 11 runs Saturday and 10 more Sunday.

The Blue Jays entered the season with enormous offensive expectations surrounding the core of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Tulowitzki. That quartet hasn't quite lived up to the hype created by last season's dominant second half.

Donaldson has been good but not great following his 2015 MVP season, hitting .254/.366/.513 with 13 doubles, three triples, 14 home runs and 37 RBIs. His 40 walks are third-most in the American League and his 49 runs are fourth.

Bautista has hit just .234, but he has a .369 on-base percentage with more walks (47) than strikeouts (44). He has 15 doubles, 12 homers and 40 RBIs.

Encarnacion has been the Jays' most consistent run producer. He has 15 doubles, 15 homers and 54 RBIs, the clearest beneficiary of all the RBI opportunities provided for him by Donaldson and Bautista.

Tulowitzki had a dreadful start to the year and was hitting .204 when he went on the DL with a quad injury at the end of May. He had a setback during his rehab assignment and the timetable for his return is now in question.

Toronto's best hitter has actually been Michael Saunders, a left-handed hitting corner outfielder set for free agency this winter who could be an intriguing option for the Phillies. Saunders has hit .311 with a .955 OPS. He has 17 doubles and 11 home runs.

The Blue Jays' offense is boom or bust. Donaldson, Encarnacion, Saunders, catcher Russell Martin and first baseman Justin Smoak have combined for 285 strikeouts, an average of 57 per player. For reference, Ryan Howard leads the Phillies with 56 strikeouts.

Manager John Gibbons writes out his lineup card different than most managers. Last season, he led Tulowitzki off after the midsummer trade because he thought the most seamless way to integrate him into the Blue Jays' lineup was to have him take Jose Reyes' spot. This season, he's led Bautista off a lot because of his high on-base percentage. The result is a top-heavy lineup where the 6 through 9 hitters are pretty weak.

Bautista missed games over the weekend with a thigh injury but is expected to be Toronto's DH in this two-game series against the Phillies.

3. Expect more sliders from Eickhoff
Jerad Eickhoff hasn't just been snake bit by low run support in his MLB career, he's also been unlucky in the opponents he's drawn. Of Eickhoff's 20 starts, five have been against the Mets, who have been a powerful offense since Eickhoff's arrival in the majors. He's faced the Cubs twice in the last three weeks, and now he gets the Blue Jays, a team that crushes the ball in its hitter-friendly home park and has the patience to wait out any pitcher.

Eickhoff (3-8, 3.68) has had exceptional control this season, walking 15 batters in 73⅓ innings. He's walked one batter or none in seven of 12 starts and has only one outing all year with more than two. But Bautista, Donaldson, Encarnacion and Martin know the strike zone very well and won't chase, especially if they're ahead in the count.

Eickhoff recently turned himself into a true four-pitch pitcher with a four-seam fastball, sinker, curveball and slider. In his last start he threw a career-high 28 sliders, with that pitch replacing his 12-6 curveball as his most-used breaking pitch. 

It's a trend over his last three starts. During that time, Eickhoff's pitch breakdown has been 27 percent four-seamers, 24 percent sliders, 22 percent sinkers, 19 percent curveballs and eight percent changeups. He's given the opposition more to think about at the plate than just fastball-curveball. It was a necessary adjustment and Eickhoff made it. Now it's just a matter of executing those pitches against the Blue Jays.

Sliders from right-handed pitchers have given the Blue Jays some trouble in 2016 — Donaldson, Smoak, Encarnacion, Bautista, Saunders and Martin have hit a combined .202 in 173 at-bats ending in that pitch.

Every start for a second-year pitcher is big, but this one is particularly important for Eickhoff. He's made two solid starts in a row and is coming off a seven-inning, two-hit, one-run outing against the Cubs. If his command can stay sharp and he can best the Blue Jays tonight, he'll have pitched well in consecutive games against two of the majors' top offenses. Imagine what that would do for a 25-year-old's confidence.

4. Good luck with the knuckler
The Phillies face knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who hasn't been nearly the pitcher he was in 2011 and 2012 with the Mets but can still shut a team down on any given night. 

Dickey (4-6, 4.15) has won his last two starts, allowing two earned runs in 12 innings against the Red Sox and Tigers. 

The best way to get to Dickey is to wait him out. He's had three games this season with four or more walks, and he's allowed four-plus runs in six of 13 starts. He's been particularly susceptible at Rogers Centre in Toronto, where he's 0-4 with a 5.55 ERA and has allowed seven home runs in 35⅔ innings this season. 

That said, this is the kind of matchup Dickey probably appreciates. The Phillies are a young team that doesn't have much experience against Dickey, which benefits him. Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz are a combined 10 for 44 (.227) against Dickey with just one extra-base hit. All other current Phillies are 11 for 30 (.367) off of him. Freddy Galvis has had the most success, going 4 for 12 with a triple and a homer.

5. This and that
• Closer Jeanmar Gomez had four days off before pitching Sunday, but he might still be unavailable after throwing 32 pitches in a blown save against the Nationals.

• Maikel Franco has been decent since the calendar turned, hitting .278 in 10 June games with three homers and an .861 OPS.

• Tommy Joseph started playing pretty much every day on June 1 and has hit .333 over that span with a double, four homers and seven RBIs in nine starts.

• Cameron Rupp has 16 extra-base hits, the same number as Yadier Molina but in 96 fewer plate appearances. In fact, Rupp has more extra-base hits than nine starting catchers who have more plate appearances. He ranks sixth among all major-league catchers with a .433 slugging percentage.

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