BRADENTON, Fla. - McKechnie Field's public address announcer instructed the fans to remove their caps. The national anthem was ready to be performed. That is when the nerves kicked in Monday.
"Here we go," said Larry Eflin, his shaky right hand covering his heart.
His son, Phillies pitching prospect Zach Eflin, stood below in the bullpen. Preparations were all but finished for Eflin's first game against major-league hitters. His father could only watch.
Zach Eflin pitched the first three innings of an 18-4 Grapefruit League loss against Pittsburgh. He allowed four runs, three of which were unearned. Two of the three hits he allowed were home runs. He changed speeds with his fastball and mixed in a change-up and slider. It was a promising start for the team's second-best pitching prospect.
Larry Eflin found his seat behind home plate with his parents, Lloyd and Delaine. His oldest daughter, Brittany, sat one row in front. She flew in from Phoenix on Sunday night. Zach Eflin's girlfriend, Lauren Dennen, was across the row with her father and brother. The righthander's other sister, Candace, sat in the section below with Eflin's mother, Cathy, and grandmother, Ellen Adams.
"I didn't look for them at all because I knew if I looked at them I'd keep looking at them," said Eflin, who was born in Orlando. "But it was really cool. It was exciting that they all got to come out. It's like a 21/2-hour drive, I think, and it was really cool for them to see that."
Eflin, 20, was acquired with lefthander Tom Windle in the trade that sent Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers. Eflin removed his hat and stood behind the mound after throwing his warm-up pitches. He covered his mouth with the cap's brim and read the message he has written inside each cap. I play to motivate, to inspire and to show that you can fulfill a dream with faith and dedication.
The first batter he faced, Josh Harrison, hit a homer to right-center field. Welcome to the big leagues, his father said. Eflin stayed composed. He picked up his first strikeout and retired the next three batters to end the first. Manager Ryne Sandberg said Eflin had a good demeanor and "didn't look like a guy that was going to back down at all."
Jered Goodwin, Eflin's coach at Hagerty High in Oviedo, Fla., sat in the row behind his father. Eflin's performance reminded Goodwin of the 2010 district championship game when Eflin was a sophomore. Eflin came in as a reliever in the late innings with Hagerty trailing rival Oviedo High.
The opposing pitcher was A.J. Cole, who received a $2 million signing bonus that August from Washington. Goodwin said you could not tell who had the better arm. Eflin pitched a scoreless inning and Hagerty rallied to win the title. His grandmother said the team carried Eflin off the field.
"That was the day when we were like, 'wow,' " Goodwin said. "No nerves, no anything. It was just cool, calm, collected. It's the same thing, I see today. He gives up a leadoff home run and the next pitch is a groundout to second. It's like 'OK, here we go. I'm going to fill it up. If you're going to hit, you're going to hit my pitch.' That's how he's been for a long time."
Eflin reported to the Phillies clubhouse in Clearwater at 9:30 a.m. He traveled to Bradenton on the Phillies charter bus. He called Brittany, who was traveling to the game with his family. She put her brother on speaker phone and the Eflins prayed together. Her brother was ready for this, Brittany Eflin said. Zach Eflin said the game was surreal. The pitcher admitted to feeling some jitters when he was warming up and he was not the only one.