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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Bobby Abreu, Cliff Lee, Scott Rolen headline polarizing list of ex-Phillies on Hall of Fame ballot

Bobby Abreu, Cliff Lee, Scott Rolen headline polarizing list of ex-Phillies on Hall of Fame ballot

MLB's 2020 Hall of Fame ballot was released Monday and it included six former Phillies of varying degrees of popularity. In fact, it's hard to even say which of the six is the most beloved in Philly. 

Bobby Abreu
Raul Ibanez
Cliff Lee
Scott Rolen
Curt Schilling
Billy Wagner

• At first glance, you might say Lee. He had great moments with the Phillies, memorable playoff games, and that low-key swag that drew fans to him. But things ended in a clunky way when he came back the second time. An elbow injury caused Lee to miss the final 1½ years of his contract and he was pretty much invisible during that time. He was also noticeably absent when the 2009 NL Championship team got together at Citizens Bank Park this past summer. The answer is still probably Lee, but it was a sour end for plenty of folks.

• Abreu is very well-respected around the game for being an ahead-of-his-time player with gaudy, well-rounded stats, but he was and still is polarizing around here. A portion of the fan base will always look at Abreu as an overrated compiler who was scared of walls. The other portion — it may be an even 50-50 split these days — appreciates the player Abreu was and realizes he'd be worth $200 million today.

• Phillies fans haven't forgotten Rolen's elite defense. Rolen was truly one of the best defensive third basemen of all time. But he orchestrated his way out of here and that is remembered equally, if not more so. 

• Schilling ... yikes. Not delving into that one beyond an acknowledgment that his post-playing career has been remarkably strange.

• Ibañez was well-liked here and everywhere else he played. He may manage in the majors some day soon. He had an incredible first half in 2009, his first year with the Phillies, then was just slightly above average the rest of his three-year career with them.

• Phillies fans don't feel especially attached to Wagner, who was great here but lasted only two seasons. Unlike the other five on the list, Wagner should be in the Hall of Fame, in my opinion. Wagner was a more dominant reliever than Trevor Hoffman or Lee Smith. He had six seasons with an ERA under 2.00. He saved 422 games. He could have hung around for three more seasons to hit the arbitrary number of 500, which would have made him a Hall of Famer. Instead, Wagner retired on his terms after posting a 1.43 ERA for the Braves in 2010.

It will be interesting to see whether Abreu, a first-time candidate, gets the groundswell of support we've seen in recent years with players like Tim Raines.

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Phillies free-agent target: Zack Wheeler

Phillies free-agent target: Zack Wheeler

Leading up to baseball’s winter meetings, we will take a daily look at some of the game’s top free agents and how they could potentially impact the Phillies.

Today, we check in on Zack Wheeler, a right-hander who is seen as having much untapped potential.

The vitals

The very talented Wheeler has a big fastball — his career-high 96.8-mph average velocity was fourth-best in the majors among starting pitchers in 2019 — and excellent breaking stuff, but injuries and inconsistency have prevented him from blossoming into a star. He is 44-38 with a 3.77 ERA lifetime. He was the No. 6 overall pick by San Francisco in the 2009 draft. He was traded to the Mets two years later for Carlos Beltran, who is now the Mets' manager. Wheeler will turn 30 in May.

Why he fits

His career is trending upward and a team might be getting him just as he’s about to put it all together. Wheeler has been mostly healthy the last two seasons, going 23-15 with a 3.65 ERA in 60 starts. He has pitched 182⅓ and 195⅓ innings, respectively, the last two seasons, a good sign after struggling with injuries early in his career. In both 2018 and 2019, he was one of the best in baseball after the All-Star break, going a combined 14-3 with a 2.26 ERA.

Wheeler also reached a career high by throwing a first-pitch strike 65.8 percent of the time, a top-10 mark that placed him ahead of Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander.

Given the supply and demand for starting pitching in the majors, Wheeler is headed for a big payday, but not as big as the top arms in this market. That might allow the Phils to spread around their dollars and fill multiple holes.

Why he doesn’t fit

From Charlie Morton in the starting rotation to David Robertson, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter in the bullpen, the Phillies have been burned by injuries to free-agent pitchers. Wheeler missed significant time recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2015 and 2016. He spent time on the injured list in 2017 and was briefly sidelined in 2019 with what was called shoulder fatigue. He rebounded quickly and was able to make 31 starts, but his health history can't be ignored.

The Phillies need to be protective of their high draft picks. They would surrender a second-round pick for the right guy. The question remains: Is the inconsistent Wheeler the right guy? When push comes to shove, the Phils would probably do it.

The price tag

Some team is going to bet on Wheeler being ready to reel off several years of good health and effectiveness. The industry feel is that Wheeler could come in somewhere between the four-year, $68 million deal that Nathan Eovaldi got from Boston last year and the six-year, $140 million that Patrick Corbin got from Washington. In other words, he could be looking at a $100 million payday. 

Scout’s take

“The velocity is intriguing. My concern is he gets hit too hard for the kind of stuff he has. He’s had some health glitches so that makes it a risk for the kind of money he’s going to get. But the raw stuff and potential are definitely there. It just depends on a team’s willingness to risk.”

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