WASHINGTON -- The intoxicating vibe that has taken over the Phillies' clubhouse this month was stifled Sunday when the team lost a game and watched starting pitcher Zach Eflin exit after just two innings and 38 pitches because of continued concern for the condition of his right knee.
Eflin was tagged for five hits, including a three-run homer by Juan Soto, and four runs in the 9-3 loss to the Washington Nationals. It was the second straight shortened start for the right-hander, who left Tuesday night's outing against Miami after six innings and 80 pitches because of tightness in his knee. Eflin missed the final 2½ months of the 2021 season with a torn patellar tendon in the knee. It was surgically repaired in September.
After Sunday's game, both manager Rob Thomson and Eflin tried to quiet the alarm over the pitcher's early exit. Both said it was planned.
Eflin was seen by doctors after Tuesday's shortened outing. The doctors said the surgically repaired patellar tendon was fine and Eflin was diagnosed with a bruise to the "fat pad" in his right knee and cleared for his next start. Eflin said he sustained the bruise while making a twisting defensive play in Milwaukee on June 9.
Though he did not reveal it pregame, Thomson said he planned to limit Eflin to three innings Sunday.
"During the first two innings, he was doing a lot of running around, covering first, backing up bases, and it looked to me like he was a little ginger walking around so I was just being careful with him.
"His velocity was good. It may have affected his pitching, but he wanted to keep going, actually. It was my decision to take him out. I just didn't want to put him in harm's way."
Eflin said he woke up Sunday morning and "wanted to pitch and cover some innings." And as far as protecting himself for free agency -- "I'm not wired that way," he said. But Eflin admitted that the knee is not 100 percent and it has compromised his ability to "comfortably" push off the rubber two starts in a row.
Eflin was scheduled to travel with the team to Texas after Sunday's game. He will be re-evaluated by the medical staff on Tuesday.
"There's nothing structurally wrong with anything in my knee," he said. "It's more like a bruise or impingement kind of under my patellar tendon, which is great news. Everything with my patellar tendon is treated out. I've seen doctors about it. Everything tendon-related is fine. No structural damage at all. It's mostly just the fat pad is swollen under the knee. It's just one of those things where we've kind of got to find that common ground of when to push it and when to back off it and let it heal itself.
"Going into today, we were talking about doing kind of like an opener situation, kind of go around like three innings, see what I can do. But I'm encouraged to know we didn't take a step back, that it didn't feel as bad as it did last start, and it keeps trending in the right direction."
It may be trending in the right direction, but no one is sure whether Eflin will make his next scheduled start Saturday in San Diego.
"I don't know," Thomson said. "We'll re-evaluate on Tuesday, see how he's doing. Once we see him on Tuesday, we'll know a lot more."
Does Eflin believe he'll make his next start?
"Yeah," he said. "As of right now, absolutely."
The starting rotation is one of the Phillies' strengths. The unit entered Sunday with a 3.65 ERA, ninth-best in the majors, while taking down 327⅓ innings, second-most in the majors.
The rotation that has built these impressive numbers is not deep. It's basically five guys -- Eflin, Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Kyle Gibson and Ranger Suarez -- and none has missed a start with an injury this season. After this group, there is Bailey Falter and Cristopher Sanchez in the minors and not a whole lot more. So the Phillies are hoping that Eflin's issue is indeed just a bruise that is getting better. Losing him for any amount of time would hurt.
Eflin's exit put an early damper on the day as the Phillies saw a five-game winning streak snapped. They had beaten the lowly Nationals in the first four games of the series, twice in 10 innings.
The Phillies are still going pretty good at 15-3 in June. Bryce Harper missed Sunday's game with an infected blister on his left hand. The Phils hope to have him back Tuesday.
"We beat (Washington) four out of five," Thomson said. "We're going to lose some games along the way. But the club is doing well, in good spirits, a lot of energy on the bench. So, we're good. Day off (Monday), regroup, rest up and we'll take on Texas."