Number Two pitches with a rosary in his back pocket. Number Three broke his arm as a kid, lost baseball, but found himself. Number Four has a tattoo of praying hands on the outside of his left arm, a sacred memorial.
Pitching is what Phillies starters Aaron Nola, Kyle Gibson, and Zach Eflin do, but it is not what they are. None hides his faith behind a bush. All rely on their belief in the Lord to endure the trials they’ve faced getting to the big leagues, and the uncertainty that comes with every pitch thrown to major-league hitters.
If this sounds familiar, then you were paying attention in 2017. Eagles quarterbacks Carson Wentz, Nick Foles, and Nate Sudfeld gave their lives, and their games, to God. That season ended with a world championship.
The Phillies are praying 2022 ends that way for them, too.
Early in 2019, Nola had a 7.45 ERA. After a sparkling season opener the Phillies lost his next three starts, and his ERA was 10.13 in those games. The spotlight shined on Nola brighter than it ever had before, and he was blinded.
Bryce Harper had just landed with a $330 million contract, Nola was coming off an All-Star appearance, and was in the first season of a four-year, $45-million deal. He’d never faced pressure like this.
After his third disastrous outing, Nola found himself in his apartment in Philadelphia, frustrated and alone, baffled at why he suddenly couldn’t get an out and couldn’t get a break. It felt like every time a hitter made weak contact it wound up as a hit, and Nola kept pressing harder and harder.
As he considered his situation, his hand kept finding a strand of rosary beads. He’d picked up the beads in 2016, just before his first start of the season against the Reds. With the beads in his back pocket, he gave up just one run in seven innings on that cool Cincinnati evening. They’ve been there every start since.
But three years later, as the night wore on, the beads seemed to have lost their power. They weren’t his only habits.
Like many players, Nola had been a fanatic of pregame superstitions. The night before every start, he’d shower with a special body wash. At his locker, he’d always put his right sock on first, then his left sock. Then the right shoe. Then the left shoe. Then tie the right shoe. Then the left.
“It was OCD,” Nola said.
As he prayed, Nola recalled something he’d once heard Roy Halladay say:
“You can be worried about six innings and three runs and getting a ‘quality start,’ and you can be worried about bloop hits and bleeders getting through. Or, you can be concerned with executing the next pitch.”
He realized, he said, that the superstitions didn’t get him to the majors, and they didn’t make him the money. God did. So, like Halladay, Nola began to worry about the next pitch. Not the bleeders. Not the bloops.
“When I did that, things started to turn around,” Nola said. “Things started to be a little bit more at peace.”
In his next 16 starts Nola went 7-2 with a 2.87 ERA. The Phillies won 11 of those games. Not every game went smoothly, but Nola never panicked.
“In baseball, things can spiral really quick,” Nola said. “When things aren’t going your way, He’s the only one who can save you.”
That’s why Nola abandoned the superstitions.
“When you have superstitions like I did, when things go bad, you have to find something else to be superstitious about. Then, the next time, something else. And keep searching,” Nola said. “But with faith, you go to one thing, and one thing only. That’s why it’s so much better, for me.”
But no baseball player operates without routine. Nola still has the rosary. He keeps it in the small, grey pouch it came in; it was broken when he brought it out for display last week. His only remaining ritual: He prays the rosary -- a series of vocal prayers -- before every start, with the beads in his hands.
Then he puts the beads in his back pocket, takes the mound, and goes to work.
Kyle Gibson threw 120 pitches and completed a seven-inning game in the season opener for his junior varsity team his freshman year at Cathedral (Ind.) High. Felt great that day, and the next day, but a week later, while playing shortstop, the pain began to arrive. He could barely throw the ball to first base. When a ground ball found him in the third inning, he reared back and threw.
He heard a rip. He’d fractured a growth plate in his right elbow. He had surgery in May and couldn’t pick up a ball for four months.
It was a blessing.
His grandfather, a traditional Southern Baptist preacher, pastored a traveling church that made monthly trips to four sites near Gibson’s home in Indiana. Kyle played for an elite travel baseball team coached by his father, Harold. But baseball was always more his religion. Until there was no baseball.
“When I first got hurt, I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll never play baseball again,’ ” Gibson said. “I was 15. Had no idea what was going to happen next. That was the first time I didn’t have baseball in my life to lean on, to be my source of joy, to be my identity.”
Instead of starring in the big travel baseball tournament in his hometown of Greenfield, Ind., Gibson was raking the infield and watching his teammates play. Horrible, right? Not so much.
Gibson joined a youth group. He went on a mission trip. Before he knew it, baseball was coincidental.
“I had the time of my life,” Gibson said. “That was the summer I gave my life to Christ. I know baseball’s going to be here and gone, and it might be gone sooner than later. If I wanted something stable in my life, it had to be something other than baseball.”
Stress fracture in his right ulna as a junior at Missouri? No problem. It dropped him out of the top 10 in the 2009 draft, but he still went 22nd overall to the Twins.
Tommy John surgery in 2011, as the Twins’ top prospect? Yawn. He’d just bought a new house in Fort Myers, Fla., near the Twins’ spring training facility. He’d just gotten married to his college sweetheart, and they’d found Riverside Church not 10 minutes from their home. And he’d been through rehab before, with God at his side.
“That first surgery mentally and physically prepared me for Tommy John,” Gibson said. “My faith informed me: ‘I’m supposed to be at rehab.’ ”
Not everything was easy, but struggles develop character. His first full season in the majors was feast or famine, with 11 horrible starts and 15 great ones (and some ho-hums), but start No. 29 began horribly, with four runs in the first two innings. After the second inning, Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki found Gibson in the dugout and told him the team needed at least five innings that night. Gibson was flummoxed ... until he recalled a chapel he’d heard from then-chaplain Dave McIver, who’d preached that the human brain could not process anxiety and gratefulness at the same time.
“I adopted an attitude of gratefulness,” Gibson said. He retired 12 of the next 13 batters. He’s been sure to be grateful ever since.
Zach Eflin came one day at the age of 19 with ink all over the top portion of his left arm. His dad, Larry, was not pleased.
“My dad wanted to kick me out of the house,” Eflin said.
Then Larry examined the tattoo: Two hands clasped together in prayer in the tradition of the masterwork of German artist Albrecht Dürer, with script beneath:
Walk by faith, not by sight
It was Eflin’s tribute to his sister Ashley, a leukemia victim who died at the age of 7. Zach was too young to remember. It is his only connection to her.
“I know my sister’s up there,” Zach said, “looking down on me.”
He feels a part of her is here, too. Eflin and his wife Lauren had their first child last fall.
They named her Ashton.
“Family name,” Eflin said. “Sort of.”
The tattoo is so sacred to him that he won’t allow it to be photographed. It is his only connection to her memory. When he told Larry that he got the tattoo to honor Ashley, the tattoo became a bond between them.
Her death shattered the home, drove his mother and father to divorce, sent Larry with two daughters and a son to live with their grandparents, where nothing ever came easy; one of Eflin’s older sisters has special needs. But Zach says he was always a believer, so the worries and troubles never caused him despair. Not then. Not now.
He’s undergone three knee surgeries in the past five years. He’s been told by coaches to abandon his trademark sinker. He had the worst major-league debut in Phillies history.
He handled it all with the same aplomb.
“Going out on the mound and throwing in front of 40,000 people doesn’t affect me whatsoever, because I know my Lord and savior Jesus Christ is above me, and he’s got my back,” Eflin said. “Faith, to me, has always been No. 1. I’ve always lived a care-free life. I’ve always known that God has had my back through everything. Being a good person, being a good Christian -- heaven’s going to open its doors.
“If you can live your life knowing there’s a next chapter, there’s nothing to worry about.”
That’s the common thread among the three.
“It’s great to have Aaron and Gibby right there every step of the way,” Eflin said. “They’re a true example of what it means to be a faith-based person and to carry that on the field. We’re grateful that we’re all together.”