These last six weeks, the Phillies have desperately needed a starting pitcher other than Aaron Nola to step up to keep them alive in the NL East race.
Zach Eflin has been that guy two starts in a row, allowing one run in 11 innings in victories over the Marlins and Mets. If the Phillies lose one of those games, they lose the series and their already slim playoff hopes reach critical condition.
The most impressive aspect of Eflin’s night Wednesday in the Phillies’ 4-0 win over the Mets was his changeup, specifically to the dangerous Michael Conforto. Eflin trusted the pitch vs. lefties and executed it as well as he has all season.
After retiring him twice (the first time on a swinging strikeout), Eflin faced Conforto in the fifth inning with two on and two outs. The Phils’ lead was on the line in that moment, with the Mets’ best power hitter at the plate two nights after homering and driving in six runs.
Eflin got Conforto to swing over a 3-2 changeup and the crisis was averted. The Mets didn’t threaten again.
You don’t want to overemphasize one good start from a young pitcher, but if Eflin’s confidence in his changeup grew Wednesday, it’s a night you’ll think back to as his career unfolds. At various points in the season, all four of Eflin’s pitches — four-seam fastball, sinker, slider, changeup — have looked like plus pitches.
He has a lot in his toolkit. He can throw a four-seamer by a hitter at 95 up in the zone. He can keep the ball in the infield, as he did Wednesday when just one of 21 Mets put the ball in the air against him. He can use the slider’s movement to complement the opposite movement from his two-seamer.
If Eflin can effectively throw that changeup to powerful left-handed hitters, he can be a reliable mid-rotation piece for years to come.
He’s the lone Phillies starter who will not pitch this weekend in Atlanta, but Eflin will indeed face dangerous lefties like Charlie Blackmon, Carlos Gonzalez, Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis in his remaining two starts.
Blackmon and Freeman are both red-hot, in zones where they’re capable of hitting every type of pitcher they face. Go pull up a clip of Blackmon’s rainmaker off Clayton Kershaw Tuesday at Dodger Stadium.
Eflin will likely need that changeup to work against them like it did Conforto. With every remaining game carrying massive importance, the Phillies’ playoff hopes could depend on it.