Phillies

Outs are precious and Phillies pitcher Zach Eflin will get them his way in 2020

Outs are precious and Phillies pitcher Zach Eflin will get them his way in 2020

FORT MYERS, Fla. — It was just one pitch in the first inning of an exhibition game Wednesday, but it painted a vivid picture of who Zach Eflin was as a pitcher last year and who he wants to be this year.

With a man on first base and one out, Eflin was facing Nelson Cruz. The Minnesota Twins’ designated hitter is one of the most dangerous power hitters in the game, having averaged 34 homers over the last 11 seasons.

The count went full on Cruz and Eflin didn’t hesitate. He went to his best pitch, the sinking fastball. Cruz beat a hard ground ball to third and Jean Segura made a nice backhand play to start a 5-4-3 double play to end the frame.

“I was pretty excited about that,” Eflin said later. “Going back to my sinker. It’s a situation where I need to throw it.”

Eflin was asked what pitch he would have thrown in that situation last season.

“Ah, last year, maybe fastball at the top of the zone,” he said. “Maybe I would have tried to rip a hard cutter or slider. Something like that.”

The sinker has always been Eflin’s bread and butter pitch. But last season, under former manager Gabe Kapler and former pitching coach Chris Young, he was encouraged to emphasize four-seam, power fastballs at the top of the strike zone. He did have some success with the approach early in the season, but eventually lost his way and his spot in the rotation. After some soul searching and some counsel from teammates such as Jake Arrieta, Eflin decided that if he ever returned to the rotation he would go back to featuring his best pitch, a fastball with movement down in the zone. He returned to the rotation in mid-August, ironically when Arrieta went down with an elbow injury, and pitched well over the final weeks of the season to solidify his place this year's season-opening rotation.

“It’s not easy,” said Eflin, recalling last season’s struggles. “When you’re trying to be someone you’re not, it’s not the best way to go about it.

“At the end of the day, we want to feel as good as we can on the mound and when you’re trying to do something different, you don’t feel good.”

With each passing day, another pitcher seems to step up and offer thoughts about how wonderful life has been under new pitching coach Bryan Price in the first few weeks of camp. Price is open-minded to the new-school ways of pitching, but he’s committed to bringing back some old-school philosophies. He has stressed the down-and-away fastball. He has stressed that pitchers work to their strengths. For Eflin, that means the sinker.

“What everybody is focused on right now is being themselves and realizing what got us to the big leagues and taking advantage of doing what you’re good at, so I think that’s a huge step for everybody,” Eflin said. “I think the underlying factor is just being able to stay to our strengths and really just attacking the hitters, and for us starters to go as deep as we can in a game and really relieve the bullpen as much as we can so they’re fresh come the end of the season and playoffs. Just that being put in our heads as a starting staff is huge.”

Though the sinker is Eflin’s strength, he still has the power on his fastball to pitch occasionally at the top of the zone. In fact, it’s important that he do that occasionally to change a hitter’s eye level and prevent them from sitting on a particular pitch or location. Eflin knows this. He learned a lot about himself and pitching last year. That much was evident in the first inning of his spring debut Wednesday: Sinker, ground ball, double play.

“Outs are really precious in this game regardless of how hard they hit it, so just to be able to do that is good,” he said.

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Forgotten Phillies opening day starters of the last 30 years

Forgotten Phillies opening day starters of the last 30 years

Steve Carlton, Terry Mulholland, Curt Schilling, Roy Halladay. There are certain eras of Phillies baseball over the last 40 years when you knew who was going to have the honor of being named opening day starter before spring training even started. This year, Aaron Nola was poised to take the ball for his third straight opening-day start. 

Since Carlton’s incredible run of starting 14 out of 15 openers, there have been 15 pitchers tabbed to start the season off for the Phillies but not all were household names. Here’s a look back at some of the pitchers you may have forgotten got the nod in Game 1 of 162.

2005-06: Jon Lieber

Lieber had a couple of pretty good seasons with the Cubs early in the 2000s, was an All-Star in ’01 when he won 20 games and started three straight Opening Days for them. But after having Tommy John surgery, he signed with the Yankees, missed all of ’03 and then bounced back with a solid 2004, good enough for the Phillies to sign him.

He won that '05 opener for the Phillies and had a pretty good campaign, winning 17 games and leading the NL in starts. He pitched another two unremarkable years for the Phils, going 12-17 with a 4.87 ERA.

2001/02: Omar Daal/Robert Person

Lumping these two together because it was a transition time for the Phillies. In the midst of their seventh straight sub-.500 finish, the Phillies traded ace Curt Schilling in July of 2000 to Arizona for four players, one of which was Daal. The lefty ended up losing 19 games in 2000, one game short of becoming the first pitcher in 20 years to lose 20. But that was good enough to earn (?) him the opening day start in 2001, the first with Larry Bowa as manager. Daal had a better year, going 13-7, but did have a 4.46 ERA.

Person also had a very solid season, going 15-7 with a 4.19 ERA. That got him the start in the 2002 opener, but he never found the same success on the mound as he did in ’01. At the plate, however, he had one of the more memorable days for a Phillies pitcher this century in a June game vs. Montreal. He hit a grand slam and a 3-run homer, going 3 for 4 with seven RBI.

2000: Andy Ashby

Ashby had come up in the Phillies system in the late '80s and actually made his MLB debut for the club in 1991. He was drafted by the Rockies in the expansion draft and ended up in San Diego, where he flourished. He was a two-time all-star, started a couple of openers and helped lead the Padres to the NL title in 1998.

When the Phillies traded three prospects for Ashby before 2000, they thought it gave them a legit 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation to go along with Schilling (who missed the beginning of 2000 due to injury). However, that didn’t work out. After going 4-7 with a 5.68 ERA, Ashby was traded during the All-Star break to the Braves for Bruce Chen.

1996: Sid Fernandez

Did you even remember Sid Fernandez was a Phillie? From 1994 through 1999, Schilling started five of six opening days for the Phils. When he started ’96 on the DL, in stepped Fernandez for the opening day honor. “El Sid” had some really good seasons with the vaunted Mets staff of the '80s, making a couple of All-Star games and helping them win a World Series.

Almost a decade later, he signed with the Phillies for the second half of the ’95 season and did well, posting a 3.34 ERA and going 6-1. He wasn’t as effective in ’96, which basically ended his career (he pitched one game for Houston the next season).

1990: Bruce Ruffin

Remembered more for his Chris Berman-given nickname, Bruce “Two Minutes For” Ruffin’s career started with a bang. He went 9-4 with a 2.46 ERA for the Phillies in 1986. But it kind of went downhill from there. Over the next five years with the club, he never finished above .500 and had only one year with an ERA below 4.00. But he got the opening day start in 1990 because someone had to. Partly because…

1989: Floyd Youmans

Maybe the original “new guy” that got the nod for the Phillies, Floyd Youmans had a promising start to his career in Montreal. He started the opener in ’87 at the age of 23, but injuries and a suspension derailed his time there. Before the 1989 season, the Phillies got him in a trade for Kevin Gross. Youmans started only 10 games for the Phillies in what was his final MLB season.

1987-1988: Shane Rawley

Rawley actually had a few good years with the Phils. He made the All-Star team in 1986 and won 17 games with a 3.54 ERA. In ’85, he won 13 with a 3.31. So when it came time to replace Carlton for Opening Day, the torch was passed to Rawley.

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What an opening weekend this would have been for Phillies

What an opening weekend this would have been for Phillies

"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone." — A. Bartlett Giamatti

Of all the quotes about baseball I have read, the beginning of Bart Giamatti's essay "The Green Fields of the Mind" is the one that paints a picture (in oil, of course) of my connection to and love of baseball.

In three sentences we are taken from the renewal of spring to lazy summer afternoons and evenings at the ballpark and finally, to the ache of autumn as the game leaves us for the year.

This year, with fairly little warning, the heartbreak came early. Spring fever actually came with a ... real fever.

We had opening weekend on tap. The Phillies visiting the Miami Marlins. We would take the wraps off a revamped Phillies roster and get a feel for our new set of wheels this season.
What do we have? A team to be truly excited about? Not enough horses? Can Bryce Harper pick up where he left off? Will Jake Arrieta and Rhys Hoskins bounce back?

My watch signals game time.

My phone reminds me, too.

Do the watch and the phone know what they're doing to me?

If you've been a baseball fan since you were a kid, on opening weekend there is a sense of "school's out!" even though you've got two months left. What it is, really, is the promise of summer, laid out in 360 feet of basepath and three acres of the lushest Kentucky Bluegrass you've ever smelled.

As with this opening weekend, the weather is unpredictably tantalizing. Thursday gorgeous, Friday the same, Saturday wet, Sunday back in the drink.

All of that would have been OK. The Marlins play in a dome. The games would be played regardless of weather.

Would have been a good weekend to stay inside.

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