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May 06, 2019

Kevin Cooney: Zach Eflin could prove to be the third starter the Phillies are looking for

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0611_Zach_Eflin_USAT Eric Hartline/USA Today Sports

Zach Eflin has become the slump buster for the Phillies.

The biggest thing that impressed Andrew Knapp about Zach Eflin on Sunday was something that neither the Phillies backup catcher nor starting pitcher had any amount of control over.

After all, baseball players are supposed to be creatures of habit. And so — when word had filtered down that the 2:05 start could be pushed back until 3:30 or so due to the forecast of storms through the area — there could have been a sense of relaxation that filtered through the clubhouse.

That is, except for Eflin. When the storms broke apart and the game went on as scheduled – Eflin went right to work.

“We were ready to go at 2 p.m.,” Knapp said. “That’s really hard to do when you hear that storms are rolling in. But Zach was able to stay focused on that and we were ready to go when it was time.”

And boy, did Eflin go to work. And on a starting staff that still seems to have a ton of questions about it, Eflin is making his bid to become one of the mainstays of it.

After Sunday’s 7-1 win over the injured shell known as the Washington Nationals, Eflin is now 4-3 with a 3.00 ERA in seven starts with a complete game and is holding hitters to a .253 average. Those numbers are a bit misleading, however, because Eflin has allowed opponents to three or fewer earned runs in six of his seven starts. Only his start against Miami on April 13- six earned runs and 10 hits in four innings — would be classified as substandard.

In the last two starts — his complete game last Sunday against the Marlins, followed by his seven inning, four hit, one run outing against the Nats — Eflin pounded the strike zone with a 67 percent strike ratio.

“He’s getting in the zone early, so he’s throwing first pitch strikes frequently,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. “He just gets in the zone, stays in the zone and is comfortable with contact. He’s not picking around the edges … even if there’s hard contact, he’s right back there around the zone.”

“Being able to go in and out on some guys and get some weak contact, it’s a lot of fun,” Eflin said.

On the surface, Eflin doesn’t have that same type of stuff that some of the other potential back end of the rotation starters in the Phillies system have. He doesn’t have the ability to overpower like Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta seem to possess. Eflin may not have the craftiness that Eickhoff — when he’s healthy and right — seemed to carry two years ago.

But there are enough glimpses that appear on a regular basis to make you think that there’s something there which could translate to a bigger stage. Eflin doesn’t go for the flashy – and perhaps that’s why he’s the most effective of that quartet if he’s consistent.

Last year, Eflin had a stretch from June 5 to July 3 where he won every one of his six starts, striking out 34 while walking only six while allowing a WHIP (Walks plus Hits Per Innings Pitched) of 0.93 and a 1.91 ERA in that timeframe. Two years ago, he had a four start stretch of no-decisions where he averaged 6 1/3 innings with a 3.00 ERA.

And yet, it is the consistency that he has lacked. In the 13 starts from July 3 to the end of the season, Eflin went 4-6 with a 5.74 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP. It is why every conversation about who would end up being in the Phillies starting rotation in Clearwater seemed to throw in Pivetta, Velasquez and Eickhoff before Eflin on the “most likely to make an impact” chart.

“It’s all about consistency,” Eflin said. “It’s about locating the pitches on a consistent basis. It’s about going with the game plan before you go out. I’ve come a long way from chucking it out there and hoping it would get hit to someone. Now, I have the ability to miss some barrels and get a ground ball double play when I need to. It’s about understanding what I need to do.”

“He looks like he looks when he is good in the past,” Kapler said. “He’s in the zone with the fastball and at the top of the zone with his fastball against left handed hitters. In and out of the zone with his sliders to right-handed hitters. And never willing to fall behind in the strike zone. He always wants to attack the hitters.”

Measuring sticks in early May are a dangerous thing. Generally, anything done before the trade deadline — that period when rosters are finalized for stretch runs and resemble the teams that will take the field in October — is discounted when the leaves change colors in the fall.

But the next three weeks feel like it will be as close to a litmus test stretch for Philadelphia’s hopes within the National League as any other point on the schedule. Remember that the Phillies have played a grand total of nine of the first 33 games outside the National League East – a division that seems on the surface to define mediocrity right now as bullpens implode and injury list names mount around them. The fact that they went 15-9 in those games have separated them from the rest of the pack.

In the next four weeks, 19 of the next 25 games for Philadelphia will involve the potential National League playoff teams in the Cubs, Brewers, Cardinals or Dodgers. Thirteen of those games will be on the road. These are teams with high powered lineups that rank in the top half of the National League in runs scored and OPS.

And that’s why Eflin is so vital for what the Phillies could end up becoming. Matt Klentak and company have pretty much banked the Phils fortunes this year to the idea that Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta are going to be comfortable starters in the top two spots in the rotation. But that third spot — the one that makes you consider making a major move — could still be filled in-house if Eflin could grab the bull by the horns and get consistent.

During this stretch, Eflin figures to get five starts. If he showed in that time what he did on a gloomy, gray Sunday afternoon, he could make life a lot easier for the Phillies brass and reduce the urgency to make a major deal that everyone has predicted for them to make

After all, forecasts can turn out to be wrong. It’s keeping your focus no matter what the conditions may be that could end up turning out to be the ultimate barometer between success and failure.

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