Phillies

What's up with Zach Eflin and is it wise for the Phillies to keep pitching him?

What's up with Zach Eflin and is it wise for the Phillies to keep pitching him?

PITTSBURGH — The state of the Phillies’ starting pitching continues to get more and more suspect with each passing day.

As if it isn’t bad enough that Jake Arrieta has a painful bone spur in his right elbow and isn’t sure he can make it through the season, or that Nick Pivetta has been demoted to the bullpen to make room for a guy (Drew Smyly) who had an 8.42 ERA before being released by Texas earlier this season, or that Vince Velasquez is allergic to the middle innings, now Zach Eflin has a heavy body.

That’s a way of life for middle-aged sports writers, but it doesn’t sound so good for a 6-foot-6, 25-year-old pitcher who, at least outwardly, appears to be in good physical condition.

“It’s felt heavy for a little bit, but everybody feels heavy, you know,” Eflin said after pitching poorly in a 5-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday night. “It’s something you go through during a season.”

Really?

Explain.

Are we talking fatigue? Are we talking something more serious, like a health issue?

“There’s really no explanation for it,” Eflin said. “You know sometimes you feel like you hit a brick wall, sometimes you wake up, you don’t feel great. Right now it’s one of those things where I’m kind of searching for what’s best for me, what’s going to work for me. It’s nothing that prevents me from throwing a baseball or anything, it’s just making adjustments to my routine or the way I prep, but in no way, shape or form does it affect me throwing the baseball.”

Two starts previous in Atlanta, Eflin admitted that a 13-pitch showdown with Ronald Acuna Jr. took a physical toll on him. Had that at-bat come in the eighth inning, it would have been completely understandable. But the at-bat came in the first inning.

This is no joke.

Is there a health concern here?

“It has nothing to do with health,” said Eflin, who has an ERA over 9.00 in his last five starts.

Eflin was not the reason the Phillies lost this game. Sure, he gave up three runs in the third inning, but lack of offense was the culprit in this one. The Phils were out-hit, 13-3. Their only run was unearned. They struck out 11 times and were 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position. Pittsburgh starter Joe Musgrove allowed just two hits and struck out eight in six innings.

“I don’t think we swung the bats the way that we’re capable of swinging the bats,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “Musgrove did a pretty good job of keeping us off balance.”

Kapler disclosed that Eflin’s body felt heavy as he talked about the pitcher’s performance after the game.

“Zach’s body is feeling a little bit heavy right now and his stuff is just getting a little bit lighter than it was earlier in the season.” Kapler said. “I think that’s something we have to pay attention to and get his body to feel energetic and moving towards the plate with intensity all the way through his outing.”

Including his work at Triple A, Eflin pitched a career-high 148 innings last season. He has pitched 110 innings in 19 starts, hardly an exhausting workload, this season.

What gives?

“It could be a number of things,” Kapler said. “It could be mechanics, sometimes. It could be some fatigue, sometimes. But that’s something I want to dig into with Zach and our training staff and give him the best chance to have success by having that conversation.”

It would not be surprising if that conversation included discussing the possibility of going on the injured list. Something seems to be going on with Eflin and you have to wonder if it would be wise, from a team in a playoff race to a personal-health standpoint, to send him back to the mound for his next turn.

Suddenly the state of the Phillies' starting pitching is even more tenuous than it was before.

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Phillies Talk podcast: Will there be baseball or not? 50 games would be lame

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Phillies Talk podcast: Will there be baseball or not? 50 games would be lame

Jim Salisbury and Corey Seidman break down potential compromises between MLB players and owners to get a deal done and baseball back on our screens.

• Gut-feelings/educated guesses: Will there be a 2020 MLB season?

• How can these sides stop circling around each other and find a compromise?

• Ideas for a pay structure.

• What would a 50-game or 60-game season look like schedule-wise?

• Phillies and other clubs hemorrhaging money right now.

• Memories from next week's classic Phillies-Dodgers NLCS re-air.

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5 years later, Jeff Francoeur remembers Chase Utley having his back on the mound

5 years later, Jeff Francoeur remembers Chase Utley having his back on the mound

We've taken many strolls down Memory Lane during baseball's shutdown, but maybe not one as sad and ugly as this one.

Or, frankly, as humorous.

We're nearing the five-year anniversary of the low point of one of the most dreadful seasons in Phillies history.

Remember 2015? Ninety-nine (bleeping) losses. A season so bad it made Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg run away and hide.

Remember June 16 in Baltimore, the night that sorry season went from bad to completely off the hook?

Literally.

Jeff Francoeur remembers.

And not only because his left butt cheek hurt so much when it was all over.

Truth be told, even though the Phillies lost by the embarrassing score of 19-3 to the Orioles that night to complete their worst road trip in 132 years — yes, 132 — and even though the pitching coach and the team's star player almost dropped the gloves on the mound, Francoeur had a blast.

And he let that be known in the dugout after the seventh inning.

"I told the guys, 'Hey, I'm the only one to put up a donut tonight," the likable former Phillie recalled with a laugh on our Phillies Talk podcast recently. "It was a horrible road trip, the end of a bad time, yet it was kind of funny how it was able to play out. I still laugh when I think about it."

Francoeur spent a dozen years roaming the outfield for eight different big-league teams. Like many top baseball-playing athletes, he pitched in high school and dreamed of taking the mound just one time in the majors.

He was a reserve player during his one season in Philadelphia and more than once in that dismal campaign had reminded skipper Sandberg and pitching coach Bob McClure that he was available for bullpen duty if the team was having a particularly bad night at the office.

"We lost quite a few games in blowout fashion that year, so I was always kind of begging, 'Let me go in the game, let me go in the game,'" Francoeur recalled. "Ryno, to his defense, and I thought it was great, he never really wanted position players to pitch. He'd say, 'We've got enough arms to cover it.'"

But on June 16, 2015, as his team was on its way to completing an 0-8 road trip and his time as Phillies manager was nearing an end, Sandberg was forced to ditch his policy of not using position players on the hill. Jerome Williams had gotten torched and injured in the first inning and the Phillies had rolled through three relievers in the first six innings. 

In the fifth inning, Sandberg sidled up to Francoeur in the dugout.

"You still volunteering?" the manager asked.

"Absolutely!" the wannabe pitcher exclaimed.

As a player, Francoeur had a personal policy of putting his phone away and not checking it when he arrived at the ballpark for his workday. But on this night, he broke his own rule. After learning from Sandberg that he would pitch the seventh inning, he tiptoed into the clubhouse, pulled out his phone and called his wife, Catie, who was watching the game back in Philadelphia.

Catie, who knew her husband would never be near his phone at the ballpark, saw the number pop up and answered the phone in a panic.

"Don't worry," Jeff whispered. "Call my parents, get the DVR ready, I'm coming in the game to pitch."

Francoeur headed to the bullpen in the top of the seventh to warm up. Though he had pitched in high school and once in Triple A, this was different.

"My heart was pounding a mile a minute," he said.

He entered the game in the bottom of the inning. It was hardly a high leverage situation. The Phils trailed by a footballish score of 17-3. The Orioles' line score to that point looked like this: 6 3 3 1 1 3.

So, of course, Francoeur, throwing in the low 90s, had a 1-2-3 inning, the Phillies' first and only one of the night.

Looking for another quick inning, Sandberg sent Francoeur out for the eighth. That's when things went off the hook. Literally. Francoeur gave up a homer to Ryan Flaherty, the Orioles' eighth bomb of the game, then had trouble throwing strikes. He hit a batter. Walked a couple. His pitch count was soaring. Sandberg and McClure wanted to get someone up in the bullpen but they couldn't because the bullpen phone was off the hook. It wasn't until someone in the 'pen noticed McClure waving a white flag that the phone was put back on the hook.

By this time, Francoeur was laboring on the mound and Chase Utley was getting pissed. McClure went to the mound and was joined there by the entire infield. Utley, in no uncertain words, expressed his displeasure for what was going on and the way Francoeur was being pushed. Francoeur said he had one more hitter in him. He got that hitter and the inning — and the ordeal — mercifully ended with two runs in.

Five years later, the image of Utley giving McClure an earful is still fresh.

Was it as tense as it looked?

"Oh, it was worse than that," Francoeur said. "There were probably seven F-bombs in it. I thought those two were about to go right there on the mound. I said, 'This is all we need.' I remember I looked at Chase and thanked him for coming to my defense. I looked at Bob and I said, 'Look, this is my last hitter here,' and luckily, somehow, I got out of that inning. I still don't know how, but I did.

"To Bob's defense, he knew it. He said, 'We've let this get out of control.' But at that point, I wanted to dig a hole and bury myself right there on the mound at Camden Yards. My first inning, that was phenomenal. The eighth inning, I had that coming and I take full responsibility for it."

The clubhouse was tense after that loss, the Phillies' 20th in a 25-game stretch. There were rumblings that big changes were coming, that Andy MacPhail was about to be hired as club president — and, indeed, he was. Sandberg called the loss "ugly," and added, "I almost don't know what to say." McClure denied any friction with Utley. Utley didn't make himself available to reporters after the game.

Francoeur, an upbeat, positive soul, was all of that after the game. His arm was fine. He said he had no issues with anyone and said the Phillies owed the Orioles an ass-whuppin' the next night in Philadelphia.

The Phillies lost that game, too.

Nine days later, Sandberg, worn down by the losing, resigned from the job.

Francoeur played out the rest of the season with the Phillies and was passionate about the team avoiding 100 losses. That is still one of his takeaways from the season. That and the sore left butt cheek.

"Two hours after the game, my left butt cheek was killing me from landing 48 times," he said with a laugh. "I could hardly even get off the train back in Philly.

"But I am the only one who put up a goose egg that night."

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