MILWAUKEE — Zach Eflin needed just 73 pitches on Saturday afternoon to cruise through the first five innings of a 4-1 win over the Brewers. He retired 14 of 15 batters as he settled in after allowing a run in the first inning. The righthander had six strikeouts and strong command of his fastball.
Eflin returned to the dugout after breezing through the fifth and seemed prime for at least another inning or two. But Gabe Kapler had a decision to make.
The Phillies were then clinging to just a one-run lead in the sixth inning. They had two runners on with two outs and Eflin was coming to the plate. Kapler, whose team averaged just three runs per game in their last 15 games, wanted a bigger advantage. So he pulled Eflin for a pinch-hitter.
"It was tough," Kapler said. "That was a really tough decision."
The tough decision proved to be the right one. Maikel Franco, the pinch-hitter, was walked to load the bases. J.P. Crawford brought in a run on a bases-loaded walk after taking all six pitches he saw. Cesar Hernandez followed with an infield dribbler, driving a run home as he beat the throw to first base.
The Phillies lost their starter earlier than they wished, but they now had a two-run lead. The Phillies want to play for big innings, Kapler said. Sometimes, the manager said, "that means pulling a guy who has a pitch count in the mid-70s."
"It's tough in any situation when you come out after five innings, regardless of what your line is," Eflin said. "But I understand the situation and the point where we were at during the game. It ended up paying off for us. It really helped us get those extra runs. Although it is upsetting, I completely understand. It's the right baseball move to do."
With Eflin gone, the bullpen was called on to protect the three-run lead and piece together the final 12 outs. Tommy Hunter, Edubray Ramos, Seranthony Dominguez, and Hector Neris did that by retiring 12 of the 15 batters they faced. It was a needed win after Friday night's blowout loss. A win Sunday — with Aaron Nola on the mound — would give the Phillies their first consecutive series wins since April 15.
Even Kapler's bullpen management required a tough decision. He inserted Dominguez in the eighth and planned on him also handling the ninth. But his mind changed after Dominguez threw 17 pitches and allowed two runners in the eighth. So he pulled Dominguez for a pinch-hitter in the ninth and called on Neris — the former closer who flamed out this season in the ninth inning – to record the final three outs.
Neris, pitching with a three-run lead thanks to the two runs the Phils scored when Kapler pulled Eflin, retired the three batters he faced. He needed just eight pitches. Rhys Hoskins, who hit a 431-foot homer in the fourth, said it was "nice to see Hector back to himself." Andrew Knapp, who homered an inning after Hoskins, navigated Dominguez through his troubles, then called for Neris to throw more fastballs to make his splitter more deadly. The strategy worked. It was Neris' first save chance since May 21. And he showed no scars from his previous troubles.
"No nerves," Neris said. "If you feel nervous, it's because you don't know who you are. You come in and do your job. That's it. If you're doing good, you stay happy. If you're doing bad, you get for a chance another day."
The Phillies left the bases loaded in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings. They struck out 14 times, went 2-for-14 with runners in scoring position and left 15 men on base. But those struggles were easier to swallow because of the way the Phillies responded to Kapler's tough decision. Those two runs provided a cushion for the bullpen and helped Kapler's next tough decision — Neris over Dominguez — feel a bit easier.