Say this for Zach Eflin: He has staked his claim to a spot in the Phillies' 2020 starting rotation.
Making his last start of the season, Eflin scattered five hits through 7⅔ innings on Saturday night, before allowing a two-run homer on his 108th and final pitch of a 9-3 knee-slapper over the Miami Marlins. The victory guaranteed that the Phillies will finish with at least a .500 record for the first time since 2012, the year Eflin was drafted by the San Diego Padres.
But the big right-hander’s resurgence goes far beyond one start against the worst team in the National League. In six weeks since he returned to the rotation after a brief banishment to the bullpen, Eflin amassed a 2.78 ERA and separated himself from disappointing Nick Pivetta and erratic Vince Velasquez in the conversation about which of the Phillies’ unproven starters deserves another chance next season.
“I think there’s a fairly clear distinction, and that’s not meant to be a knock on Vinny or on Nick,” manager Gabe Kapler said before the game. “It’s just, I think, Eflin has experienced more sustained success. I, personally, think that Eflin has established himself as a dependable piece of a major-league rotation.”
If there was a pivot point in Eflin’s season, it came last month, when he decided to resume leaning on his sinker to induce weak contact early in counts, rather than following pitching coach Chris Young’s philosophy of elevating four-seam fastballs to get more swings and misses. Young’s tactic seemed to tire out Eflin and cause him to mislocate pitches that turned into home runs and extra-base hits.
There will be some irony, then, if Eflin is back with the Phillies next season and Young is not.
“At the end of the day, I just wanted to go out there comfortable, and that’s what I did these past six starts,” Eflin said. “Whether that means fastballs up or sinkers down, really whatever is working in the bullpen is kind of what we’re going for in the game. Having a game plan to go off that is huge.”
The hardest-hit ball that Eflin allowed against the Marlins came on his 108th pitch, the most he’d thrown since May 11. He became the first Phillies starter to pitch into the eighth inning since Aaron Nola on July 2, and he didn’t falter until Todd Walker’s two-run homer, by which time the Phillies had a 9-1 lead.
Cesar Hernandez led off the home first inning with a home run off Marlins lefty Caleb Smith. Maikel Franco added a two-run shot in the second inning, while rookie catcher Deivi Grullon notched his first major-league hit, an RBI double in the third.
Bryce Harper belted a three-run homer in the sixth. It was Harper’s 35th homer of the season, the second-most by a player in his first season with the Phillies, after Jim Thome’s 47-homer debut in 2003.
With a victory in Sunday’s season finale, the Phillies will finish with a winning record for the first time since 2011, the last year they made the playoffs.
“Gotta do it,” Harper said. “Gotta go out there and win tomorrow. That’s huge for us. We can go 82-80. Of course, that’s not where we want to be, but winning seasons are good. It’s a stepping stone into next year.”
But the story, once again, was Eflin, who threw 33 sinkers but mixed in curveballs, change-ups, and 10 four-seam fastballs. In each of his starts since rejoining the rotation, he has thrown more sinkers than four-seamers.
Eflin’s revival isn’t an aberration. He was the Phillies’ most consistent starter through mid-June. He posted a 2.83 ERA in his first 14 starts, prompting discussion of a possible All-Star nod. But he notched a 10.46 ERA through his next six starts, complaining of fatigue after a Fourth of July start in Atlanta and a “heavy body” after a July 20 start in Pittsburgh.
“The most important thing [in the offseason] would be to get on a pretty good workout routine and really kind of try to make some gains this year,” Eflin said. “Maybe increase my weight a little bit, lose a little body fat, and be more conditioned going into spring training.”
Regardless, Eflin finished the season with a 4.13 ERA that wasn’t too far off Nola’s 3.87 mark.
“Toward the end of the game, we were inching toward that 4.00 ERA mark, and we thought that if we could keep pushing through that outing, maybe even toward the last part of the ninth inning, he would have dropped it under 4.00," Kapler said. “That’s a testament to the great job he’s done this year. It was a proud moment for him walking off the mound.”