When Pete Mackanin went to the mound to talk to Jerad Eickhoff during Thursday's game in Minnesota, he had a very pointed and direct order to deliver. It wasn't nearly as much a discussion as it was a scolding.
After the 25-year old righty had become infatuated with throwing to first base - he threw over 18 times in the first four innings - Mackanin had a talk with the pitcher in the dugout and basically told him to knock it off. Mackanin explained that with Eickhoff's natural, quick delivery, he didn't need to waste his energy or focus on throwing to first base as often as he was. Well, Eickhoff went out in the fifth and completely forgot about the chat he had with his manager and started to throw over to first again, leading to Mackanin popping out of the dugout.
As the infielders started to head for the mound, Mackanin waved them away. He didn't have anything to say to them, it was simply a message for Eickhoff. This time, Mackanin's message was much sterner and apparently, much clearer. Eickhoff was told basically, don't throw over to first again for the rest of the game. Focus on the hitters.
Message delivered; finally.
"I thought I could get them," Eickhoff told reporters after the game. "It just kept on going."
One of the mentors for Eickhoff has been veteran catcher Carlos Ruiz. The two were paired together Thursday and may well be in the lineup together for the remainder of the season as Eickhoff learns the ropes. With Ruiz behind the plate, Eickhoff's ERA is 2.35, while it bumps up to 3.88 in games when Cameron Rupp is catching.
"There are times in the game when, in my head, I wouldn't necessarily throw a changeup," Eickhoff explained. "But [Ruiz] is throwing it down, and I believe in what he's throwing down, I trust what he's doing. I have confidence in the pitch, too. It's an evolving process with throwing it and when to throw it."
Ruiz will also be behind the plate Sunday when struggling right-hander Aaron Nola makes his next start, with hopes that Ruiz can help him to find whatever has been missing in his last few starts.
Eickhoff isn't the only young player to struggle with some pretty basic things. Outfielder Odubel Herrera has had more than his share of miscues, especially in the field. On Thursday, he misjudged another ball that should have been caught. Earlier this season, Herrera didn't bust it out of the box on a groundball back to the pitcher, who double-clutched after looking a runner back to second, and Herrera was almost safe at first. Had he run at even anywhere near regular speed, he would have been safe for his fourth hit of the game. Instead, he finished with a three-hit game, but was still in the manager's dog house after the game and wound up benched. Mackanin did the same thing last September when Herrera seemed to be "pouting" and not playing the game the right way.
After this year's benching, Herrera told CSNPhilly.com: "I was frustrated. I respect his decision. I know that I did wrong. I have to learn from my mistakes and it won't happen again. I didn't think he was giong to bench me. I understand why. I can't argue."
At Triple-A Lehigh Valley, manager Dave Brundage has had to deliver some discipline of his own at times. In a game against Durham on June 11, the IronPigs jumped out to an early 8-0 lead. J.P. Crawford led off the fourth by attempting to bunt for a base-hit, something you don't do with an eight-run lead. To make things worse, Nick Williams followed Crawford and tried the same thing. With the Bulls unhappy about the two bunt attempts, they decided - for some reason - to take their anger out on Brock Stassi, who took a 95 mile-per-hour fastball to the leg an inning later.
One inning after that, Crawford was back at the plate, and even though both benches had been warned about throwing at hitters, Durham pitcher Parker Markel threw two straight pitches right at Crawford's legs. The Phillies top prospect was able to dance out of the way on both, and Markel was ejected from the game after the second pitch and benches started to empty. Cooler heads prevailed and there was no brawl, but the issue wasn't over as far as Durham was concerned. In the seventh, it was time for Williams to wear a bullseye and he was drilled by pitcher Adam Kolarek. Neither bench came onto the field, but the message was now officially delivered.
Brundage gathered both Williams and Crawford right on the field and let them know that the issue was all because they made bad decisions.
"These are young kids and they thought it was the right move, but you don't do that," said Brundage. "I told them about it right on the field and pointed out that they got a teammate hit and they both could have been hit. That's not the way we want to play the game, they need to realize how the game is played."
This time, Brundage didn't just talk. Williams sat out the next two games because of his lackadaisical play and apparently learned a lesson. When he was back in the lineup, he was hustling more than he ever has and even stretched a single into a double when the outfielder made a nonchalant play on the ball.
"He has to learn that with his speed and his talents that if he plays the game right, he can be something special. If you can't run hard, then you're not going to be able to do much in this game and I wanted him to realize that," said Brundage.
Brundage had to deal with yet another issue a day earlier when young pitcher Alec Asher, who was already on the DL with a stress fracture in his lower leg, was suspended for 80 games for failing a league mandated drug test. Asher tested positive for a PED and will now miss substantial time just when he was on the cusp of returning to the majors.
"I'm disappointed," was all Brundage would really say about Asher's suspension.
Lapses in judgement, not fully understanding how the game is played and falling into bad habits are all part of being a young player. The Phillies are working through those wrinkles throughout the system with their young players as they go through the rigors of being professional ball players. That youth is a good reason to have veterans around throughout the organization. At Reading, veteran Jake Fox is serving as somewhat of an on-field coach for players and can often be seen talking with them and is known for dispensing advice when warranted.
Lehigh Valley has veteran Cedric Hunter, who has taken on a role as a clubhouse leader for young players, and was quick to chat with both Crawford and Williams about their issues.
"These guys have loads of talent, but you have to use that talent the right way," said Hunter. "I just want to see them play right, because it will help us to win, it will help the Phillies, and ultimately, it will help them not only to get to the majors, but to have success there. Even if you don't have the talent that these guys do, you can always hustle, you can always do the right things to help your team to win."