Ask Phillies fans for one word to describe this pandemic-shortened 2020 season and frustration is the overwhelming favorite to dominate a survey about this underachieving team. In fact, if you asked the Phillies players the same thing you would probably get the same response provided they were willing to answer honestly.
The source of that frustration has mostly been the historically bad bullpen, which carried a 7.17 ERA into Friday’s doubleheader against the Toronto Blue Jays after coughing up late leads in consecutive losses to the New York Mets. The relievers surrendered another lead Friday night and the bullpen ERA rose to 7.29, but a potent offense rescued them as the Phillies executed a doubleheader sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays at Citizens Bank Park by rallying to win the second game, 8-7.
It was the Phillies' first sweep in 22 doubleheaders, a streak that dated to Sept. 9, 2012, when they took two games from the Colorado Rockies.
Zach Eflin knew the beleaguered bullpen and his struggling ballclub needed some distance in the opening game against the Jays at Citizens Bank Park and he delivered that and much, much more during a 7-0 victory that pushed the Phillies back to .500 at 25-25.
“It’s not something you think about before the game, but you know me – every single time I go out I want to pitch the whole game and that’s not going to change regardless of the circumstances,” Eflin said after allowing just four hits in a seven-inning complete game.
Manager Joe Girardi, however, had to lean entirely on his bullpen in the second game and that, predictably, did not go nearly as well. Reliever David Hale opened with three scoreless innings and the Phillies built a 2-0 lead. But Hale managed to get just one out in the fourth, and by the time the inning was over the two-run lead had turned into a three-run deficit before David Phelps came on to get the final out.
The second-game victory had no shortage of heroes. After rookie Mickey Moniak picked up his first major-league hit in the bottom of the fourth inning, rookie catcher Rafael Marchan slugged not just his first major-league home run, but also the first home run of his professional career. He had never homered in 769 professional at-bats, including 765 in the minor leagues. His first home run tied the game at 5-5 and left Bryce Harper shaking his head in disbelief.
“I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I was so fired up for him and so happy for him,” Harper said.
Back down 7-5 after Heath Hembree surrendered two runs in the fifth, the Phillies got solid relief work from rookie Connor Brogdon to set the stage for a game-tying two-run double to center field by Bryce Harper and a game-winning single by rookie sensation Alec Bohm. Brogdon got his first big-league win and Hector Neris nailed down the save.
With the Blue Jays batting as the home team in the opener, Eflin went to the mound with a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first and made it immediately clear that he had his best stuff. After giving up a leadoff single to Cavan Biggio, he struck out Bo Bichette on three pitches, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. on four pitches , and Teoscar Hernandez on five pitches. Each Blue Jay batter went down swinging on nasty curveballs from Eflin. It was a template for the rest of the game.
“For sure,” Eflin said. “We had a game plan going in – kind of mixing in a little more offspeed, so that worked out obviously in the first inning and I kind of carried that momentum. I had good spin on [the curveball] and kind of knew it was going to work and I just went with that and that made them respect all the pitches I was throwing up there.”
By the end of the evening, Eflin had nine strikeouts and the third shutout of his career.
It took Eflin just 92 pitches to finish what he started. By contrast, Toronto starter Robbie Ray, acquired by the Blue Jays at the trade deadline, needed the same amount of pitches to get through 4⅓ innings. The Phillies knocked the veteran lefty from the game while also scoring five runs on five hits in the top of the fifth. The outburst included a towering two-run homer by Harper, who had four hits and four RBIs in the doubleheader.
The Phillies had to be happy that they did not waste a big offensive night the way they have so often this season. They have scored five runs or more in 27 of 50 games, but they have also lost seven of those games and, again, frustration is the only word to describe that little detail.
While Eflin’s brilliant effort in a crucial game was to be applauded, it also left you wondering why he can’t provide that kind of performance more consistently.
During his final start in August against the high-powered Atlanta Braves, Eflin pitched an almost identical game. But in his following three starts, he allowed 11 earned runs on 23 hits in 15 innings for a 6.60 ERA. The other ramification of those shorter outings is that manager Joe Girardi had to use his bullpen in those games a lot more than he would have liked.
Frustration is definitely a word that applies to Eflin because he has displayed dominating stuff often enough that it leaves you wondering why he can’t deliver it more.
Eflin is 3-2 with a 4.28 ERA and has one regular-season start remaining. He said he is not frustrated by his 2020 season.
“It has been a very interesting season for me,” he said. “I feel like I’ve clearly had the best stuff of my career this year and kind of run into some bad luck and made some bad pitches along the way, too. I’m happy with where I’m at. Every pitch I’m throwing is working. I have more confidence than ever and I’m just trying to carry that momentum for as long as I can.”
Eflin will take that momentum into his next start, which will likely be Wednesday during another doubleheader down in Washington. With Jake Arrieta sidelined by a hamstring injury, he is also likely to be part of the Phillies' postseason rotation.
“I always want the ball,” Eflin said when asked about the possibility of pitching in the postseason. “I never shy away from the ball.”