FORT MYERS, Fla. — Zach Eflin found himself Thursday locked into a full count against Nelson Cruz, the Twins slugger who homered 41 times last season.
A year ago, Eflin said, he would’ve tried to blow a high fastball past Cruz. But on Thursday, in his first Grapefruit League inning of the season, he threw a sinker low in the zone. Cruz tapped a grounder to third base and Eflin had an inning-ending double play.
“Pretty excited about that,” he said after pitching the first two innings of a 5-4 win over the Twins.
Eflin wasn’t excited about escaping a Grapefruit League rally as much as he was excited to pitch again like himself. He battled last season to find an identity as he switched between relying on his four-seam fastball and slider and leaning on his change-up and two-seamer.
Eflin reached the majors as a sinkerballer who was not afraid to pitch to contact, but former Phillies manager Gabe Kapler and pitching coach Chris Young implored him to throw fastballs at the top of the zone and try to overpower hitters. The righthander struggled with his new orders and finally ditched the coaching staff’s game plan in August. He finished the season with a 2.83 ERA in his final seven starts, appearing to re-find himself as a sinkerballer.
“When you’re trying to be someone you’re not, it’s not the best way to go about it,” Eflin said. “I think there’s a time and a place to learn how to be productive for the upcoming season. Maybe in the offseason you start trying to screw around with stuff instead of eight, 10 starts into the year.
“So I think that was a huge learning curve for me was going into the season with what you have, make sure you’re healthy every fifth day in your bullpens and really go out and attack hitters, get early contact, get outs. Outs are really precious in this game, regardless of how hard they hit it so just to be able to do that is good.”
Eflin, who turns 26 in April, said he will pitch this season to his strengths. He’ll pitch the way he did at the end of last season, when he relied on his two-seam fastball for 42-percent of his pitches instead of the way he pitched in April and May when he threw his four-seam fastball 50-percent of the time.
And he’ll pitch under the tutelage of a new pitching coach as the analytically-inclined Young was fired after the season. Bryan Price, hired in October, will be Eflin’s fourth pitching coach in four years. It’s been four different voices, Eflin said.
“A couple of them are kind of the same person, communicate the same way, but I think more what everybody is focused on right now is being themselves and realizing what got us to the big leagues and taking advantage of doing what you’re good at so I think that’s a huge step for everybody,” Eflin said. “Not necessarily trying to pitch differently or do something different but for me personally being able to go through the last four years trying out different things as the pitching coaches came in, I know that I can kind of pitch however I want now – comfortably.”
Eflin is expected to open the season as the fourth starter in a rotation that has questions. Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler will be at the top, followed by Jake Arrieta — who said Tuesday that he’s healthy — at the No. 3 spot. That leaves Joe Girardi with Eflin and either Nick Pivetta or Vince Velasquez at the back of the rotation. Pivetta, Nola, Velasquez, and Arrieta have echoed Eflin’s excitement to work with Price. Perhaps a new pitching coach will be enough to answer the questions that hover around the rotation. He’ll start by letting the starters pitch as themselves.
“At the end of the day, we want to feel as good as we can on the mound and when you’re trying to do something different you don’t feel good,” Eflin said. “There are some starts you could go out there with what you haven’t done your whole career and feel good and think ‘OK, I might be able to do that next time.’ And the next time it just doesn’t work. So I’ve always been a consistent sinkerball guy, I always attacked the hitters so I don’t really see any reason to change that.”