Zach Eflin is putting together a nice little collection of pitching gems and Phillies couldn't be happier

Zach Eflin is putting together a nice little collection of pitching gems and Phillies couldn't be happier

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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Joe Girardi doesn't see penalty for Astros players as a deterrent

Joe Girardi doesn't see penalty for Astros players as a deterrent

The calls for Astros players to get suspended have gotten louder and louder as players have descended upon Florida and Arizona for spring training this past week. From Cody Bellinger to Mike Trout to Trevor Bauer to Nick Markakis and everywhere in between, players have made clear how angry they are about Houston's cheating scandal. 

It's going to take a long time for Astros players to gain back the respect of their peers.

It's not some easy fix, though. Astros players were granted immunity from discipline in order for their cooperation in MLB's investigation. MLB cannot, after the fact, revoke that immunity and decide to suspend players knowing what it now knows. That would never fly, and it shouldn't. Whether immunity should have been granted in the first place is the big question, but that point has passed.

Joe Girardi was asked on ESPN's Golic and Wingo Show Wednesday whether he thought MLB's punishment was sufficient.

The Phillies' first-year skipper doesn't think the current punishment serves as much of a deterrent.

"There are some people that lost their jobs that really were the people that had to pay for it, but there were a lot more people involved," Girardi said. "The financial gain for the players is substantial if they have big seasons because of this, so if there's no punishment for them, I'm not sure that it stops. I'm really not sure. Because the financial gain, similar to the steroid era, is very similar. If you know it's coming and you have a big year and you're a free agent, there's a lot (of money) to be made there and players want to take care of their families.

"I'm not exactly sure what the right answer is, but I don't know how much of a deterrent it is for players right now. There's not a huge deterrent for the players and I think there has to be to make sure that it stops."

People made fun of commissioner Rob Manfred for saying this but it should be acknowledged that the public ridicule the Astros are feeling right now will actually serve as some sort of deterrent. That doesn't mean MLB made the right call, that their decision-making process has been sound or that Manfred has done himself any favors publicly. But the disrespect factor around the league and around the country is real. Guys like Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, George Springer, even a Justin Verlander — will they ever again command the respect they did before this? This is a permanent stain.

MLB recognized how difficult an investigation would have been without cooperation from key figures and went the route of immunity. It's a decision that will be questioned for years.

"If you're not in the clubhouse and you don't admit yourself that you did it, how do you take the word from another player that he was doing it? That's the hard part," Girardi said. "Like, if you get caught with something on your body, that to me definitely should be a suspension and a huge fine. But to say that someone was using it, it's his word against his word, that's pretty tough to penalize a player."

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A small step in Phillies camp for pitching prospect Spencer Howard

A small step in Phillies camp for pitching prospect Spencer Howard

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Spencer Howard, the Phillies' top pitching prospect, returned to a bullpen mound Wednesday and threw 27 pitches.

Ordinarily, a bullpen session in spring training is not news, but Howard had temporarily stopped his bullpen work after sustaining a minor knee injury — manager Joe Girardi called it a "tweak" — 10 days earlier.

Howard threw all of his pitches during the bullpen session as a gaggle of fans watched at Carpenter Complex.

"I only saw two pitches," said Girardi, who was busy bouncing around four fields. "But he felt great. That's the important thing."

Girardi said there was no timetable for when Howard would pitch in a Grapefruit League game. The Phillies are on record as saying they will take things slowly with Howard in the early part of the season. The 23-year-old right-hander is on an innings/workload limit this season and the Phillies would like to get a good chunk of those innings in the big leagues.

"Spencer has an innings limit so we have to think about this because we believe at some point he's going to play a role for us," Girardi said earlier in camp. "We can't go wear him out by June so we have to think about that. We're not going to waste a lot of innings in spring training."

It's possible that the Phillies could hold Howard back in extended spring training in the month of April so they can maximize his innings later in the season.

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