Zach Eflin was money — about $20,000 worth — on Thursday night.
It wasn't that Eflin pitched so great for the Phillies. He gave up four runs, two in the first inning, on seven hits, five of which went for extra bases, and left with two outs in the seventh inning. As his best starts of the season go, this one doesn't make the list.
But considering everything that happened at Citizens Bank Park before he took the mound and what awaits the Phillies in the next two games, Eflin helped give them what they needed: A restoration of calm, to say nothing of a split-salvaging 9-6 victory over the New York Mets in the finale of a doubleheader after their worst loss in 89 years, a 24-4 rout in the opener that featured a pair of position players combining to pitch the final three innings.
"I was hoping they got all their hits and all their runs out of the way, so I could just pitch and have fun," Eflin said. "Every time I go out and I pitch, I try to pitch my best and stay in as long as I can. The mind-set didn't change at all. I knew I needed to go long tonight and was able to kind of do that. Nothing really changed."
The Phillies actually wound up picking up a half-game in the standings after the division-leading Atlanta Braves lost, 5-3, to the Colorado Rockies. And with co-aces Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom slated to start for the Mets on Friday night and Saturday, respectively, the Phillies are only 1 1/2 games off the pace in the National League East.
After pitching his game, Eflin returned to triple-A Lehigh Valley to complete a 10-day minor-league option, a roster maneuver last week that cost him about $20,000 in major-league salary but enabled the Phillies to keep a full complement of position players on their bench and eight relievers in their bullpen. Eflin is expected to be recalled to make his next scheduled start next week against the Washington Nationals.
Kapler had used only two of those relievers in Game 1 of the doubleheader when, with the Mets pummeling the Phillies by 11 runs, he decided to put rookie center fielder Roman Quinn on the mound in the seventh inning. It was a strategy, Kapler said, to preserve the bullpen for Game 2.
Quinn, who has a checkered injury history in the minor leagues, wound up throwing more pitches (42) than long reliever Mark Leiter Jr. (37). And when Quinn ran out of gas with two out in the eighth inning, Kapler turned to shortstop Scott Kingery, who lobbed the ball so softly to the plate that it didn't register on the radar gun.
"Down the road we're going to look back on this and it's just going to be a time when we got our asses kicked and we had position players on the mound," said Kapler, who defended his unusual deployment of pitching position players in the few minutes between games. "But in this [second] game, we're better positioned as a result."
But Eflin made sure the Phillies didn't need to burn through their bullpen.
It didn't start off well. He gave up back-to-back-to-back doubles to open the game, and the Phillies were trailing 2-0. But Eflin leaned more on his slider, a pitch that he said "kind of saved the game for me," and retired nine of the next 10 batters. By the time Austin Jackson opened the fourth inning with a double, the Phillies had a 6-2 lead.
"Today was a really gutsy performance by him and I felt he definitely got stronger as the game went on," Kapler said. "I actually think there's still some upside with Eflin."
Hoskins took Mets starter Steven Matz deep in the first inning to open a 3-2 lead. Of his team-leading 25 home runs, 14 have given the Phillies a lead. And the Phillies added three more runs in the second inning on a rally that started with a solo home run by Kingery, who snapped an 0-for-21 drought and notched his first hit since the Phillies obtained Asdrubal Cabrera to take playing time away from him at shortstop.
Eflin kept the Mets quiet until the seventh inning when they scored two runs to cut the margin to 8-4. But he had already done his job, helping the resilient Phillies once again bounce back from a tough loss.