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May 04, 2016

Rising right-hander: Zach Eflin, acquired in Rollins trade, impressing with 'Pigs

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050416.Phils.Eflin Ryan Lawrence/For PhillyVoice

Is Zach Eflin nearing a return?

ALLENTOWN – Down in the home dugout, surrounded by the small puddles that accumulated from the never-ending rain, there appeared to be a trashcan on fire.

Instead, it was a small heater to keep the Lehigh Valley IronPigs as comfortable as possible when the baseball looked uncomfortable for a game scheduled to begin in the morning on a day when the wind chill had to be lingering close to the 40s.

Despite that unattractive sales pitch for a ballgame, Zach Eflin wanted to take the mound, as scheduled. Despite what happened to the pitcher he was scheduled to share that mound with, Eflin wanted to take his turn.

Mother nature and the Phillies front office met, however, and decided it was best to keep their 22-year-old pitcher on the sidelined on Wednesday. The start of the game, originally scheduled for 10:30 a.m., was delayed for an hour and 21 minutes by rain.

Eflin, who had played catch outside the clubhouse to keep loose, was told to take the rest of the day off when he returned to the bullpen to throw a pregame side session for the second time as the grounds crew took the tarp off of the field at Coca-Cola Park.

Eflin and fellow right-handers Mark Appel and Jake Thompson are a combined 7-3 with a 2.91 ERA in 13 games, with 61 strikeouts and 22 walks in 74 1/3 innings. And Eflin, the youngest of that trio and one of the five youngest players in the International League, has been the best of the trio a month into the ‘Pigs season.

“It’s disappointing that we even made an attempt to get started,” Lehigh Valley manager Dave Brundage said following the ‘Pigs 7-2 loss to Pawtucket. “You’ve got a 22-year-old young prospect and his arm comes first. … It wouldn’t have been a smart decision (to pitch him).”

Brundage was ticked because who wouldn’t want to send out a pitcher who has allowed one run or fewer in three of his four starts when you’re a manager trying to win two games in a row for the first time in 10 days. Eflin was bummed, too, because, like any competitor with a beating heart and working arm, he was eager to pitch, rain or shine.

“I wanted to be out there,” he said. “These guys got me last time and I wanted to get them back.”

“These guys” were the Pawtucket Red Sox, a team that put a five-spot on Eflin in the first inning of his third start of the season on April 22. Although he’s only made four starts since the Pigs’ season began last month, it’s that game at Pawtucket that looks odd next to the rest of his strikingly strong starts.

But, when you dig deeper beyond his pitching line, even that game showed off Eflin’s talent: after Pawtucket sent nine batters to the plate and scored five times in the first, Eflin didn’t allow another hit and only one base runner reached (on an error) in the next five innings.

“That says a lot about a young man that is up and coming, that’s getting his feet wet at Triple-A,” Brundage said. “Those are good experiences for him, to have to deal with that kind of adversity.”

At the major league level, the Phillies have a rotation dominated by 25-and-under-somethings, going through their first full big league seasons and adjusting to the best hitters in the world in a battle for survival. No big deal, right?

So far, they’ve more than held their own. The trio of Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez, and Jerad Eickhoff is 8-5 with a 2.83 ERA in 17 games, with 116 strikeouts and 27 walks in 101 2/3 innings.

“It’s awesome to see what they’re doing,” Eflin said. “I think they did a really good job in spring training of establishing what they wanted to do in the season – that’s work together and have a solid rotation. And that’s what you admire in other rotations as well.”

Eflin would know, because he’s a part of a similarly-talented trio that’s one step away from the big leagues.

Eflin and fellow right-handers Mark Appel and Jake Thompson are a combined 7-3 with a 2.91 ERA in 13 games, with 61 strikeouts and 22 walks in 74 1/3 innings. And Eflin, the youngest of that trio and one of the five youngest players in the International League, has been the best of the trio a month into the ‘Pigs season.

Even with his aforementioned outing at Pawtucket, Eflin is 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA in four starts. Eflin’s 0.76 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) is tied with Pittsburgh prospect Jameson Taillon for tops in the International League and his 7.33 strikeout-to-walk rate ranks third.

“The ability to command the baseball,” Brundage said of what’s most impressed him about Eflin, who has 22 strikeouts and three walks in 26 1/3 innings. “You look at his numbers all throughout the minor leagues and he’s been a strike-thrower.”

Eflin was also that guy last year, as a 21-year-old at Double-A Reading.

He went 8-6 with a 3.69 ERA and walked just 23 batters in 23 starts. Only 11 pitchers had a lower walk rate in the Eastern League (one of those was Nola).

But Eflin, one of two pitchers, along with left-hander Tom Windle, that the Phillies received back in the Jimmy Rollins trade, isn’t exactly the same pitcher, one labeled a “back-end” pitching prospect by Baseball Prospectus this winter. At the end of last year, he re-introduced his curveball into his arsenal.

It’s been a pretty effective weapon for him.

(GIF courtesy of @LONG_DRIVE)

“I just wanted to throw it to give myself a better repertoire and really get hitters off-balanced and make my other pitches better,” Eflin said. “I feel like it’s been working so far, and it’s only getting better.”

Again, it’s a small sample size – four starts – but the results are more than encouraging. Eflin is sporting a 7.5 strikeout rate, up from an ordinary 4.6 last season.

When you’re going that good, of course, you’re fine with trying to stay loose through a near-90 minute rain delay and giving it your best shot in a less than ideal environment. That’s probably what Pawtucket thought when they stuck with their starter, right-handed former first-round pick Brian Johnson.

They might not have felt the same after Johnson appeared to be asking out of the game one batter in, when his command was off and his fastball had little pop. Johnson walked the bases loaded to begin an abbreviated outing.

Eflin, meanwhile, stayed warm by the fire inside the IronPigs dugout and will rest until his day comes again, tentatively on Saturday in Scranton.

And come this weekend, the right-hander rising among the Phillies deep collection of talented young arms will resume his path to the big leagues. Like more than a few of his teammates in Allentown, Eflin arrived from another organization as the other part of a trade when someone else’s name was prominently featured in headlines.

Like everyone else, he’s ready to establish his own career, no matter how it landed him with the Phillies.

“It was very humbling,” said Eflin, who arrived from the San Diego Padres by way of the Los Angeles Dodgers in a pair of trades at the Winter Meetings a year and a half ago. “But, like anything else it lights a fire. I don’t believe I have to live up to a certain expectation, I just have to go out there and do what I have to do.

“It’s a really cool thing to have my name tagged along with those guys, but at the end of the day, they wanted me for who I am, so I’m not going to be too much or too (little), I’m just going to do what I’ve always done and just get outs and get to the big leagues.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21