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Zach Eflin named Rays’ opening day starter

PORT CHARLOTTE — Zach Eflin signed with the Rays before last season to join what looked to be one of the game’s best rotations.

But as injuries felled the other four, Eflin emerged as the team’s most consistent and successful starting pitcher.

His 16-8 record and 3.50 ERA over a career-high 31 starts and sixth-place finish in the American League Cy Young Award voting reflected how well he did.

And there was a residual reward on Tuesday, as Eflin was named the Rays’ opening day starter for the upcoming season, set to face the Blue Jays March 28 at Tropicana Field.

“It definitely means a lot,” Eflin said. “I don’t take it lightly. I’m very thankful and humbled that the organization trusts me in this position. So, I’m excited.”

Eflin, 29, was a Rays fan growing up in the Orlando area and was thrilled when they were interested in him last winter after he left the Phillies as a free agent. They clearly wanted the veteran right-hander, as the three-year, $40 million they gave him was their largest contract in team history for a free agent.

Eflin delivered on the mound with a remarkably consistent and relatively healthy season, missing only two weeks early on due to back tightness while throwing a career-most 177⅔ innings. He also emerged as a positive force in the clubhouse, providing leadership and guidance, and organizing some team-bonding exercises.

With Shane McClanahan (who started the last two opening days) out all of 2024 as he recovers from Tommy John elbow surgery, and Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen targeting late-season returns from their elbow surgeries, the Rays again will count heavily upon Eflin as he leads a somewhat unproven rotation, starting on opening day.

“Some things you really don’t think are ever going to happen,” Eflin said. “I’ve always kind of felt buried in the staff (on previous teams). I pitched to that, so that was on me. But I also understand that this probably isn’t happening without some injuries and people that we’ve lost. And with that being said, we also have a bunch of capable arms that could pitch on opening day. So, I’m very humbled and very, just, appreciative.

“It’s a lot of trust, a lot of responsibility, but I’m ready for it. And I’m excited for it. It’s been a fun just over a year since I’ve been here, and I’m looking forward to the next two years being as good, or if not better.”

Manager Kevin Cash said it was “a fun phone call” to give Eflin the news.

“We’re appreciative that we have him,” Cash said. “He made such a big impact on our club last year, on and off the field. I think it’s been pretty well noted. And then it’s a pretty easy choice. I think we probably had our opening day starter early into the offseason.”

Cash said it was impressive to see how Eflin emerged as a leader.

“He didn’t force anything,” Cash said. “He made the relationships first and interacted with the guys around him. He interacted with the position player group. And I think they really began to respect him.

“You obviously respect what he does on the mound and what he means to our team when he’s performing. But when you take that and maybe even more so in the clubhouse, it allowed him to be the leader that he became.”

Eflin said he expects “a good amount” of family and friends to make the trip over for the matchup with the Blue Jays’ Jose Berrios. “It’s just going to be a really fun day,” he said.

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