KANSAS CITY — In Aaron Nola, the Phillies have one of the top young starters in baseball, a pitcher who can potentially do something special every time he takes the mound.
In Jake Arrieta, the Phils have a proven veteran who, despite no longer being at his Cy Young peak, will more often than not give the club a chance to win when he starts.
Much of this team’s success coming into the season was going to be dependent on how the rest of the starting rotation came together.
In the vein, how about the performances delivered by Jerad Eickhoff and Zach Eflin recently?
Three days ago in St. Louis, Eickhoff ran his recent string of success to 20 innings of one-run ball as pitched eight shutout innings in a win over the Cardinals.
And just when you thought it was going to be difficult to top that performance, Eflin does what he did Saturday night.
The 25-year-old right-hander was absolutely brilliant in pitching the second shutout of his career, a 7-0 victory over the Kansas City Royals (see observations). Eflin went the distance on 110 pitches. He worked quickly. He attacked hitters with his four-seam fastball. He moved the ball with his sinker and slider. He threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of 31 hitters. He walked none. He struck out seven. He scattered four hits.
Eflin had allowed just three singles until Alex Gordon doubled with two outs in the ninth.
With the shutout in jeopardy and the bullpen beginning to stir, Eflin pumped a 95-mph heater past Hunter Dozier to end the game.
“I was pretty upset when (Gordon) hit the double,” Eflin said afterward. “It was supposed to be a backdoor slider and I left it middle-middle, right into his swing. It was one of those things where I had to suck it up and swallow it and move on to the next guy and really not worry that it happened and trust my catcher and execute pitches.”
Eflin has executed his pitches brilliantly over the last three starts. In that span, he has three wins and two complete games. He has allowed just two runs in 25 innings over that span to lower his ERA to 2.47. Only five pitchers in the National League entered Saturday with a better ERA.
Eflin’s three dominant starts have all come with backup catcher Andrew Knapp behind the plate. The duo goes way back to Double A and enjoys a strong chemistry.
“It’s really just following the game plan,” Eflin said of the roll he’s enjoying. “I can’t give Knapp enough credit for being able to come up with a solid game plan, as well as (pitching coach Chris Young) and our analytics team. They do a great job of understanding what I’m good at. So to be able to kind of just go out and execute pitches is my main job. It makes life a lot easier when you’re not out there thinking too much.
“Knapp deserves all the credit. He knows what I’m best at, probably even more so than I do myself. He knows what’s working and what isn’t working and he’s always on my ass trying to get me to stay on each pitch and get ahead of guys and be aggressive. To have someone chirp in your ear like that is huge. It’s just been a lot of fun. The defense played great tonight, the offense was there. It was just a good team win.”
The Phils are 22-16, first place in the NL East.
Knapp has caught Eflin’s last three starts only by a coincidence of scheduling. He actually might catch the next one, too. That will be a day game against Milwaukee on Thursday. With a night game the day before, starting catcher J.T. Realmuto likely won’t start that day.
Manager Gabe Kapler is adamantly opposed to the notion of a personal catcher, but even he can’t ignore the recent success of the Eflin-Knapp pairing.
“The work that Zach is doing with Knapp is phenomenal right now,” Kapler said. “He's led in the ideal way whenever Eflin has been on the mound. Again, I am strongly opposed to any personal catcher. I will say this: If he throws complete game shutouts, I will not not have Knapp catch him the next time out. But I don't believe in personal catchers long-term and eventually J.T.'s going to catch one of Eflin's starts.”
Knapp isn’t about to lobby Kapler to become Eflin’s personal catcher, but he’s sure enjoying the ride.
“I feel fortunate to be able to catch him,” Knapp said. “When I get my opportunities I try to take advantage of them. But this is much more about the execution of the pitches than about me. Zach is the guy doing that and he deserves all the credit.”
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