If the Phillies are going to live to play a little October baseball this season, they're going to have to jump on the No. 41 train - that's Charlie Manuel's uniform number - and hit their way there.
Despite the need to out-hit other clubs, the Phillies are still going to have nights when they need their pitching to lead the way. This was one of those nights. After four big nights and as many wins, the offense was sluggish Saturday night. The Phillies needed their pitching to carry them and it didn't happen. The result was a 5-3 loss to the San Diego Padres and the end of a four-game winning streak. The Phillies, who are a game out of the second NL wild-card spot, have not won five in a row all season (see observations).
Zach Eflin, back in the rotation after a three-week demotion to the bullpen, showed a change in pitching style and opened the game with three shutout innings. He even had a base hit in the second inning to help the Phils build a 3-0 lead.
But Eflin could not hold that lead in the fourth inning and he lost it in a rather disturbing way: He gave up three two-out runs after twice being one strike away from getting out of the inning.
"Horrible," Eflin said. "I did a bad job of putting guys away in two-strike situations."
With two outs in the fourth and a man on first base, Eflin was ahead of the opposing pitcher, Dinelson Lamet, 0-2. He ended up allowing a full-count hit to extend the inning. Manuel Margot then had an RBI single on an 0-2 pitch before Josh Naylor tied the game with a two-run double on a 1-2 pitch.
"They were big," manager Gabe Kapler said of those killer two-strike hits. "We want to be able to put people away whenever we can. It's difficult. We want to execute pitches in those situations and give ourselves a chance to stay in the ballgame."
Eflin did not make it out of the fourth inning. Nick Pivetta gave up two runs in the fifth and took the loss.
The Phillies' bats produced just six hits after getting 35 the previous three nights.
Eflin has always been a guy who likes to throw his sinker and get early contact. For much of this season, however, he's thrown a high percentage of four-seam fastballs. Team officials stress that pitch, executed up in the zone, to get swing and misses and counteract hitters who look to launch the ball and Eflin has had some success with that style of pitching this season.
But July was a tough month for Eflin. He had trouble getting through the middle innings, was hit hard and eventually demoted to the bullpen. He threw no more than 12 percent sinkers in any of his final four starts before being sent to the bullpen in late July. He moved back to the rotation after Jake Arrieta's injury and threw 37 percent sinkers Saturday night.
Though he did not pitch deep into the game, Eflin wants to continue to feature his sinker in upcoming starts.
"We'll have a discussion about it, but I see no reason why I shouldn't throw more sinkers," Eflin said. "Especially if I'm trying to go deep into games.
"I don't care about swing and misses. I care about outs and going as deep as I can in games and putting the team in the best possible chance to win the game. I think swing and misses are a plus when you can do it. I'm not saying they're not important, but I think it's definitely more important to get guys out with fewer pitches as opposed to just going for the swing and miss every single pitch. It also takes a toll on your body so for me it's more important to stay in the game as long as I can, get weak contact and when a guy is on first base get a double play. And there's always going to be an opportunity for swing and miss."
With Arrieta out, Eflin knows he's important. He has a lot of talent. He was the Phillies' best pitcher over the first two months of the season. He pitched two complete games in a span of three starts from April 28 to May 11. It's in there and the Phillies need it to come out more than ever now. Maybe featuring his bread-and-butter sinker will help. Time will tell.
"It's my job to come in and fill a role and put up zeroes and put the team in the best position to win, so I'm really looking forward to building my pitch count up and feeling like a starter again," Eflin said.
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