For the Phillies to reach the playoffs, they’ll need more than Wednesday night’s 12-3 win over the Washington Nationals. They’ll need help from other teams. They’ll need to keep winning, and they’ll need to use Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler this weekend, before the regular season concludes.
If all of that happens, and the Phillies find themselves celebrating a postseason berth on Sunday in Tampa, they’ll likely need a pitcher to start next Wednesday’s opening playoff game, since Nola and Wheeler would be on short rest.
And they received a promising audition for that job from Zach Eflin, who pitched eight strong innings in the win at Nationals Park.
The right-hander looked like a playoff-caliber starter, holding Washington to four hits and one run and striking out nine before allowing two runs in the ninth inning, when the game was out of reach.
“His emotions don’t get the best of him, and he can pitch in important games,” manager Joe Girardi said.
Eflin has allowed just three runs in his last 15 innings, with 18 strikeouts.
“I want the ball. I’m not scared of the ball,” Eflin said. “If I’m the first guy up, it would be an honor, and I’m ready to go attack some hitters and get some outs.”
After the win, the Phillies flew to Tampa, where they’ll spend Thursday’s off-day before opening the final series of the regular season at Tropicana Field.
The Phillies could still make the playoffs if they don’t win all three games, but their best route to October is a sweep of the Rays, who clinched the American League East title on Wednesday night with an 8-5 victory over the Mets. Tampa is scheduled to start Charlie Morton against Vince Velasquez on Friday night.
The Marlins will finish a four-game series Thursday in Atlanta before playing three games at Yankee Stadium. The Cardinals and Brewers will begin a five-game, four-day series on Thursday in St. Louis. The Giants will spend the final weekend against the Padres.
The Phillies are one-game below .500 and a half-game behind Miami for second place in the National League East. The teams will be tied if the Marlins lose Thursday. If the teams have identical records after Sunday, the Marlins will win a head-to-head tiebreaker to earn the postseason berth.
If the Phillies take care of their business, a playoff spot should open up. It won’t be easy, but the Phillies aren’t done yet.
“We had to win tonight. That was the bottom line,” Girardi said. “One game can change a lot of things. People can get too high, or you can get too low. But you just have to be methodical about how you get through it and grind it out every day. That’s what these guys have been doing."
They played Wednesday night like a team pushed to the brink after four straight losses. Bryce Harper, who continues to play through lingering back soreness, homered twice. He hit a tone-setting homer in the first inning to center field, and followed it with a leadoff homer in the sixth.
Andrew McCutchen homered in the eighth. Jean Segura added a two-run single. Didi Gregorius and Andrew Knapp hit three-run homers in the ninth, and the Phillies built a large-enough lead for their bullpen to handle.
The team’s postseason chances could be heavily influenced by their bullpen, the worst unit in the majors. Connor Brogdon picked up the final three outs. A starting pitcher going deep into games and the lineup scoring 12 runs is a good way to lessen that influence.
Eflin did that, and he was excellent. He used 98 pitches and threw just 11 in the eighth inning, which allowed Girardi to send him back out for the ninth. He attacked the Nationals lineup, firing first-pitch strikes to 15 of the 28 batters he faced.
“I went up to him after he came out of the game, and I just told him that that was a huge start out of him,” Harper said. “We needed that out of him. He has that inside him. He is that two-three kind of guy in our rotation, where he can go out there and dominate a team on any given night when his sinker is playing. I have all the confidence in the world of him going out there and doing that against anyone who we play or we face.”
Eflin retired the side in order six times and was never in trouble. His lone run before the ninth came on a fifth-inning groundout. Eflin allowed two runs in the ninth and failed to get a complete game. But it did not ruin his night.
It won’t be hard to pass time Thursday during the final off day of the regular season as the Phillies will have plenty of games to watch. No matter what happens this weekend, their next off day is Monday.
But if they can win three more games, their chances improve that Monday’s off day is spent preparing for the postseason instead of going home. And Wednesday night allowed them to feel comfortable about the pitcher who will likely be starting if they finally return to the playoffs.