MIAMI - Zach Eflin is growing up. He's becoming a man, speaking up and advocating for himself.
The results were on display Saturday night.
Featuring mostly sinking, two-seam fastballs - the pitch that got him to the majors and the pitch that he feels most comfortable throwing - Eflin tossed six innings of two-run ball. He scattered six hits, walked none and struck out two.
The performance was Eflin's best since mid-June. He had a horrendous month of July and was demoted to the bullpen. That demotion led to his taking stock in himself as a pitcher. He concluded that he was throwing too many four-seam fastballs as he tried to satisfy those who wanted the strikeouts and swings and misses that are in vogue in today's game. Phillies officials preach throwing four-seamers up in the zone as a way to combat hitters looking to launch and the approach does have merit with pitchers who have fastballs in the mid-90s. Eflin, in fact, has had success, at times, with that approach. But after struggling so much in the middle of this season, and having trouble going deep into games, Eflin decided he needed to get back to his comfort zone. He threw 79 pitches Saturday night and 37 of them (a season-high 47 percent) were sinkers. He got 10 outs on the ground.
"I think I can personally be more effective throwing sinkers, getting early outs, and staying in the game longer," Eflin said after notching his first win in two months. "I think the recipe for getting early contact, getting ahead of guys, and staying in the game as long as I can, which is what a starting pitcher is supposed to do, definitely feels more comfortable for me."
Charlie Manuel likes to say, "Know thyself." Eflin knows himself. Using the two-seamer and pitching to contact gives him more confidence.
"Absolutely," he said. "There's always a time for swing and miss and four-seamers and stuff like that. Fortunately for me, I was able to throw a really good sinker and get some groundballs tonight."
Eflin confirmed that his July struggles made him decide to go back to featuring his sinker.
"It had been the couple outings previous to me going to the bullpen that I was kind of really wanting to go back to sinker-balling and getting early contact," he said. "That's when I got moved to the bullpen and it was kind of tough to figure out what I wanted to do from a bullpen standpoint, whether I wanted to keep doing the swing-and-miss stuff or start implementing my sinker. It had been three or four weeks in the making and then going back to the rotation I was pretty dead set on it."
Eflin said he had a conversation with pitching coach Chris Young "and he was all for" the change in approach.
"I didn't demand it at all," Eflin said. "We simply sat down and talked about it and I told him what I thought I was best at doing. At the end of the day, it's a two-way street. They want what's best for me, as well. If I'm at my best going out there throwing sinkerballs and getting early contact and going late into the game, then ultimately that's what's going to be best for the team. There was no point where they were against me doing it."
Eflin mixed in four-seamers, sliders, curveballs and changeups in stopping the Marlins on Saturday night. The Marlins put up 19 runs on the Phillies on Friday night and the team needed a big performance from Eflin.
"A lot of weak contact on the ground, good two-seamer in the zone, attacking, efficient, and strong through six innings for us," was manager Gabe Kapler's appraisal of Eflin's outing.
Kapler was asked about the genesis of Eflin's change in approach. Did the pitcher push for it? Did the team?
"I think it's a combination of both," Kapler said. "It's something that he feels comfortable with. I know that Chris Young likes to run (the two-seamer) in on the hands of right-handed hitters. If Zach Eflin is getting the ball on the ground, something good is happening. So, obviously, swings and misses are nice and there are going to be times for those, and right now he's focusing on weak contact, efficiency and getting the ball on the ground and being successful with that approach."
Kapler was asked about how that approach could help Eflin's confidence.
"I think it's less about something that specific and more about him feeling like his body is strong, he's capable of giving us length, he's capable of being efficient, and less about one pitch in particular," Kapler said. "I'm not saying that it's not important, I just don't think that it's - I think it's much more the aggregate of what he's doing right now rather than him leaning more heavily on the two-seamer. He also used a curveball and a slider successfully today and some four-seamers at times."
In the end, it doesn't matter how Zach Eflin rediscovers his effectiveness. All that matters is that he does. The Phillies are in a playoff chase. They have 34 games left. They desperately need starting pitchers not named Aaron Nola to step up. Maybe Eflin, back in his comfort zone, can be one of those guys. In the meantime, the Phillies look to make it a 4-1 trip behind Nola on Sunday.