Stellar pitching leads Phillies to tense win over Braves in series opener originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
The Phillies picked up a crucial victory in their quest to break a 10-year postseason drought Thursday night and they also may have found a bullpen weapon for the final days of the regular season and beyond.
Zach Eflin came out of the bullpen in the top of the seventh inning and registered five big outs in relief of Ranger Suarez to help deliver an important 1-0 win over the Atlanta Braves in front of a crowd of 21,276 at chilly Citizens Bank Park.
Jose Alvarado, usually a setup man, got the final four outs, two by strikeout, and earned the save.
Four days after being swept by the Braves in a three-game series in Atlanta, the Phillies opened this four-game series with a victory, thanks mostly to their pitching.
"Tight game, a lot of pressure and our pitching really came through," manager Rob Thomson said. "Ranger gave us some length, which we really needed, and Eflin and Alvarado were both tremendous.
"To win that game is huge. They're a real good ballclub. The crowd was outstanding. I'm not sure how many people were here but they were loud. There was a lot of enthusiasm and excitement, so it was good. And it was a nice cool night, so it was like a playoff game."
One night after stroking five hits against Toronto, including a game-winner in the bottom of the 10th inning, Matt Vierling drove home the game's only run with a sacrifice fly against Max Fried in the second inning.
The victory was the Phillies' 82nd of the season, ensuring a second straight winning season, but this team wants more. And with a payroll of more than $230 million, it needs more.
The Phillies stayed 2½ games up on Milwaukee for the third and final National League wild-card spot with 13 games to play. San Diego holds the second spot, but the Phils are just a half-game back.
The Phils' magic number for clinching a postseason berth is 10.
Suarez, who pitched six innings of one-run ball in a losing effort against the Braves last week in Atlanta, went six innings again. This time, he did not allow a run.
No one in the Phillies' clubhouse felt better after the win than Eflin.
A starter throughout his seven seasons with the Phillies, he missed nearly three months with pain and inflammation in his surgically repaired right knee. With time running out on the season, he was not able to build back up as a starter so he set his sights on returning as a reliever. He pitched a low-pressure inning last week in Miami and another this week at home before Thomson summoned him in a huge spot in this one.
Eflin responded brilliantly. He needed just six pitches to get through the seventh. He came back for the eighth and struck out two before handing off to Alvarado.
"It was awesome," Eflin said. "For the past three months when I was down, I'd been dreaming of being back out there and being competitive. That's all I want is to be competitive."
Thomson plans to continue to use Eflin in pressure situations. His fresh arm could be a boost at a time when several relievers are running on fumes.
Pitching in relief requires a different mindset than starting. Eflin is ready and wants to be used.
"It's a lot different," he said. "Typically, in the first inning of a start, your heart is racing and you have butterflies, but nothing like coming in in the seventh inning of a one-run game against the Braves."
Thomson said he does not have a defined closer, that he can use a number of relievers in the role. He's used Brad Hand, Seranthony Dominguez and David Robertson. All have struggled recently as workloads have built up. Add Alvarado to the list of relievers who could get closer work going forward. Shoot, it's not out of the question that Eflin gets some reps in that role, as well. Whoever can get pressure outs will be the guy.
The Phillies didn't exactly tear the cover off the ball Thursday night. They had just six hits, but two of them came in the second inning before Vierling's sacrifice fly. J.T. Realmuto set up the sacrifice fly by going first to third on a base hit to right by Jean Segura.
"That was the play of the game," Thomson said of Realmuto's baserunning.
Bryce Harper's September struggles continued. He was 0 for 4 with a pair of strikeouts. In 17 games this month, he is 10 for 65 (.154) with 24 strikeouts.
"He's just getting caught in between," Thomson said. "He'll get it back."