Zach Eflin threw a baseball on Wednesday morning and for the first time that he could remember, he felt no pain. The Phillies pitcher had played with discomfort in both knees since Little League. And now it was gone.
His troubles went undiagnosed until before last season when a spring training MRI discovered that there were partial tears in his patellar tendons. The pitcher reached the majors in June and was placed on the disabled list in August with patellar tendinopathy. He had surgery two weeks later on his right knee, followed by an operation on his left knee.
The righthander is now in Clearwater, Fla., as he works toward spring training, where he will compete for a job in the team's starting rotation.
"All of a sudden to go out there and do what I love with no pain, It's an unbelievable feeling," Eflin said. "I never thought that this day would come that I would be pain-free throwing. I thought that I would always go through it, that it was always something I could deal with it. I'm really, really excited to see what my body can handle when it's healthy."
Eflin is hopeful that his operation will allow him to use more leg strength in his delivery. He has yet to throw off a mound, but expects to do so before spring training. Eflin, who turns 23 shortly after Opening Day, will be one of eight pitchers aged 27 or younger who will be vying for a spot in the rotation. Unless a trade happens, Jeremy Hellickson, Vince Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff appear to be locks. Aaron Nola, his agent said, is 100 percent healthy after missing the final two months of last season with an elbow sprain. If so, he's a lock. That leaves one spot to be won by Eflin, Jake Thompson, Adam Morgan, Alec Asher, or Ben Lively.
"I think the competition is only going to make us better," Eflin said. "I'm the type of person that I root for everyone. I want to win a World Series and that's my goal whether I'm on the team for two months. I want to win a World Series and that's all I care about. I think all of us have that same common denominator and I think it's going to be really special."
Eflin said his throws this week — which he compared to slinging the ball in the back yard — would have felt uncomfortable six months ago. He was often told that his pain would go away with ice and rest. Nothing worked, Eflin said.
"It's always kind of been bearable," Eflin said. "I would feel it when I was running around if I was covering a base or got a hit. But adrenaline would normally kick in. It got to a point where it didn't really kick in anymore. That's ultimately why we had to make a decision."
Eflin registered a 5.54 ERA last season in 11 starts. He had his moments, including a pair of complete games. The pitcher was shelled in his debut, but rallied to record a 2.08 ERA in his next seven starts. Eflin's first season was over two weeks later. And his second one, which he hopes is pain-free, starts in less than three months.
"I'm really excited to see what can happen," Eflin said.