Philadelphia Phillies: The Zach Eflin Enigma


Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Zach Eflin delivered a strong outing against the Atlanta Braves, scattering two runs and seven hits in seven efficient innings. Eflin’s erratic season on the mound serves as a perfect microcosm of a team that is still learning what it takes to win.

Zach Eflin returned to the Philadelphia Phillies rotation after a brief exile in the Lehigh Valley wilderness. If Eflin’s outing against the Atlanta Braves is any indication, it looks as if the young righthander straightened out his game in Allentown.

Eflin guided the Phillies to a 5-2 win against their division rivals. After conceding a home run to Freddie Freeman in the first inning, Eflin settled into his game. He coasted through seven innings, surrendering just two runs while scattering seven hits.

The seventh inning emerged as the brightest spot in a very encouraging effort. Eflin commenced the inning with a walk to Nick Markakis on four pitches. Every pitch was close, and one could make the case that the umpire squeezed the zone.

However, Eflin bore down. Although the walk was followed by back-to-back singles off the bats of Kurt Suzuki and Matt Adams, Eflin made good pitches. He attacked the outside corner of the strike zone, peppering the black part of the plate with a steady diet of fastballs.

Despite the adversity he faced in the inning, Eflin managed his way through the predicament by sticking to the game plan. The damage in the inning was limited to one run, effectively ending the Braves’ chance at a rally.

The challenge for Eflin is to repeat this solid performance the next time he toes the rubber. With the notable exception of Aaron Nola, such consistency has been lacking throughout the rotation.

Eflin has proven in his brief Phillies tenure that he possesses the mental toughness required to survive as a big league pitcher. The manner in which he bounced back after a disastrous debut against the Toronto Blue Jays solidified this fact.

Nevertheless, Eflin has been erratic. Two balky knees likely played a role in the hurler’s inconsistency last season, but Eflin pronounced himself healthy heading into spring training this season. After April, it appeared as though the young pitcher was turning a professional corner. Eflin sported a 1.89 ERA and pitched through seven innings in two of his three starts.

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But May was a distaster for Eflin and for the ballclub in general. The Phillies won 6 of 28 games in the month, entrenching themselves as the league’s resident cellar dwellers in 2017. Eflin did his part to help the cause, losing three games and seeing his once-pristine ERA swell to 6.13.  After a particularly brutal performance against the Reds, Triple-A beckoned. And so, Eflin packed his bags and headed west along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

After tonight’s performance, Eflin’s back, at least for now. The professional ebbs and flows will likely continue; such is the fate of most young ballplayers who are negotiating the challenges of adapting to the professional game.

We can draw a parallel between Eflin’s struggles and those of his teammates. Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco, for example, have experienced highs and lows this season. Herrera, who must have bought a timeshare in manager Pete Mackanin‘s doghouse, possesses a unique ability to infuriate and inspire simultaneously. Tonight, Herrera looked absolutely foolish chasing a bad pitch before belting a low Julio Teheran offering that almost scraped the dirt into the right field seats.

Meanwhile, Maikel Franco has looked so hapless at the plate this season that the Phillies at one point considered demoting him. His inability to identify pitches and develop anything resembling an offensive gameplan during his at-bats have been the major drivers of his offensive regression.

However, Franco delivered a key RBI in the fifth inning that drove in Freddy Galvis. Teheran attempted to power a fastball on the outside corner past the slumping slugger, but Franco put a sweet inside-out swing on the ball. Instead of trying to pull the pitch and producing a weak grounder, Franco whacked the ball into right field. He was rewarded for his smart strategy.

Next: Remembering Darren Daulton

Going forward, the young players who populate the Philadelphia Phillies roster will need to demonstrate that they have internalized the habits and practices that have led to personal and team success. Otherwise, they will continue to flail in the basement, hopelessly grasping for a ceiling they will never reach.