During the offseason, it was disclosed that Eaton was suffering from a sore shoulder and that it had bothered him during the season. An MRI showed no structural damage and simple rest rid Eaton of the pain, and the excuse for any bad pitching. When Eaton started getting shelled again this Spring, another injury - a stiff back - was disclosed. Some time off and doing his running in a pool rather than on the Florida fields has helped Eaton recover, also ridding him of another excuse.
Excuses haven't been necessary in Eaton's last two starts.
In his last two starts, Eaton has thrown 8.1 innings and just one run on nine hits. He's also struck out six hitters and hasn't allowed a walk, continuing his string of walkless innings up to 12.1, covering all of his Spring appearances; even the weak ones. The recent surge has dropped Eaton's ERA from 9.00 to 5.84 and have raised the hopes that he can be the pitcher that the Phillies thought they were getting when they signed him to a three year, $24.51 million deal in November of 2006.
So, can the Phillies bank on Eaton's resurgence? Back injuries are often tough to deal with and make it tough to project just how a player will be able to perform. On the plus side, the Phillies devised a plan for Cole Hamels aching back that has kept him healthy without his back causing him to miss a start. The Phillies are one of the growing number of teams that have also employed a chiropractor to help keep players healthy.
If Eaton can continue pitching well, it would be a huge lift to the somewhat dicey back end of the Phillies starting rotation. While Hamels, Brett Myers and Jamie Moyer give the Phillies a formidable top of the rotation, number four starter Kyle Kendrick was joining Eaton on the list of struggling Phillies pitches this Spring, causing some questions about whether he would be able to repeat his rookie performance of 2007. That, combined with a group of struggling applicants for the fifth spot in the rotation, was causing a number of concerns around Clearwater, Florida, where the Phillies train.
Eaton will have to continue to pitch well once the season starts, since the Phillies may have another pitcher to consider before too long. Kris Benson, who is a year removed from rotator cuff surgery, will likely start the season on the DL, but could be ready for action before too long. Benson's return would give the Phillies an option if they needed to replace a struggling starter early in the season, putting Eaton and Kendrick in a precarious position.
Travis Blackley, a Rule 5 addition, is pretty much out of the running for the fifth spot in the rotation thanks to his struggles, but is still fighting for a spot in the Phillies bullpen. J.D. Durbin, who made some emergency starts for the Phillies last season, has also struggled and may have taken himself out of the running as well. Like Blackley, free agent signee Chad Durbin, is also likely relegated to a bullpen spot thanks to his weal Spring. In perhaps a last gasp effort, Durbin threw three perfect innings against Detroit Saturday, before the game was called because of rain.
While Philadelphia fans are taking a wait and see approach on Eaton, the Phillies are a little more optimistic about the transformation. Whether or not Eaton can ultimately be trusted to return to the form that got him a healthy contract as a free agent is something that remains to be seen, but the Phillies have got to trust that he's back; at least for now.