When Zach Eflin walked off the mound after the sixth inning on Aug. 10, he had a 3.57 ERA, 17th-best among the 53 National League pitchers who had thrown at least 90 innings by that point in the season. Since then, Eflin's ERA is 6.20.
A lot of things, presumably, but here's one that we know about for certain: Eflin's routine.
Eflin gave up four runs (three earned) in five innings Saturday night in the Phillies' 7-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs at Citizens Bank Park. It marked his fourth start since getting optioned to triple A on Aug. 11, a bit of creative roster maneuvering by the Phillies to give them an extra player on the bench for two games and an extra reliever in the bullpen for a few more.
Maybe it's merely a coincidence that Eflin's downturn began after that move. Then again, maybe it isn't. Either way, figuring out how to get Eflin back on track would be a big boost to the Phillies' chances of continuing to cut into the Atlanta Braves' lead in the National League East, which stretched back to three games on Saturday night.
"No," Eflin said flatly of the suggestion that the disruption in his schedule has impacted his performance. "It's not an excuse."
Said manager Gabe Kapler: "I wouldn't make that correlation."
The move with Eflin raised eyebrows, in part because he was pitching too well to merit even a short trip back to the minors. Eflin didn't miss a start — the Phillies brought him back as the 26th man for a doubleheader Aug. 16, then recalled him for good five days later to face the Washington Nationals — but he did lose nine days of major-league service time and nearly $20,000 in salary.
Eflin downplayed those consequences as minor inconveniences. But there's no denying his between-starts routine was altered. And any starting pitcher will insist that a consistent routine is essential for success.
Because Eflin wasn't on the Phillies' roster from Aug. 11 through Aug. 15 and Aug. 17 through Aug. 20, he had to throw one bullpen session in the morning at Citizens Bank Park and another in triple A. He had to actually report to the Lehigh Valley team and spend a few days there before being recalled by the Phillies.
"I wouldn't say it was thrown off at all," Eflin said. "It was a little different. But at the end of the day, I did what I had to do every single day to prepare myself to be ready every fifth day."
Said Kapler: "There's no shortage of stuff. We saw the velocity was there. We saw a really sharp slider at times. He demonstrated the use of a really good change-up at times, too."
Eflin theorized that his problems stem from poor fastball command and perhaps a few mechanical ticks. He felt like he might have rushed through his delivery for the first few innings against the Cubs, which could have an effect on his command. Regardless, he hasn't been making hitters miss nearly as often as earlier in the season.
Asdrubal Cabrera, who started at shortstop against the Cubs, didn't give Eflin any help in the first inning. His throwing error on an infield single by Javier Baez enabled one run to score. But Eflin also gave up four extra-base hits, including an RBI double to Ben Zobrist in the first inning. In the fourth inning, Kris Bryant doubled before Kyle Schwarber crushed a two-run triple that came a few feet from leaving the ballpark.
"Just kind of the common denominator the past three outings has been the fastball command," Eflin said. "When I'm trying to get it in to a couple guys, I'm kind of leaving it over the middle of the plate. So, from that aspect I'm thankful that when I do [give up] hits, it's a mistake on my part. It's fixable. I just really have to work these next six days and really get after it in my bullpens and work on missing off the plate instead of on the plate."