Back in December 2014, the Phillies’ rebuild was about two months old and the club was looking to add young talent wherever it could.
At the winter meetings in San Diego that month, the Phillies made two significant transactions.
They selected an infielder-turned-outfielder named Odubel Herrera in the Rule 5 draft.
And they traded franchise icon Jimmy Rollins to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a deal that netted them pitcher Zach Eflin.
You could make the case that these were the first two significant additions to the Phillies’ rebuild.
And on the first Tuesday night in July 2016, both of these players offered some evidence that rebuild just might be moving in the right direction.
The game was only a few minutes old when the 24-year-old Herrera learned that he’d been named to the National League All-Star team (see story).
That was a pretty neat story.
But Eflin was the real story of this night.
The 22-year-old right-hander pitched a complete game in his fifth big-league start to earn his first major-league victory in a 5-1 win over the Atlanta Braves at muggy Citizens Bank Park (see Instant Replay).
Three weeks after getting pounded for nine runs in 2 2/3 innings in his big-league debut at Toronto, Eflin was dazzling. He needed just 92 pitches and two hours, eight minutes to finish off the Braves. He scattered six hits, walked none and struck out six.
It was the first time Eflin had gone nine innings in his life. His previous high was 8 2/3 innings in Double A.
Eflin was still perspiring as he spoke with reporters 10 minutes after his gem. He was asked to describe what it all felt like when it was over.
“I can’t,” he said. “I was out there and I threw that last pitch and I was just shaking, thanking God for the opportunity to be out there. It was definitely adrenaline.
“I think it’s a pretty cool way to get your first win. It’s pretty exciting.”
Before Monday, only one Phillies starter had gone more than seven innings this season. In two days, two Phillies starters have done it. Jerad Eickhoff beat the Braves with 7 2/3 strong innings on Monday. He, too, joined the Phillies as part of their rebuild. And so, too, did Vince Velasquez. He had the only other Phillies’ complete game this season, a no-walk, 16-strikeout masterpiece against San Diego on April 14.
Velasquez threw 113 pitches in his gem, 21 more than Eflin.
“I've said it all along: Eflin is my favorite pitcher,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “What an efficient job he did. He was just outstanding. He pounded the strike zone with all of his pitches. He had a good two-seamer and really kept the ball down. He had everything going for him. I especially liked that last inning where he just went right after them and put them away 1-2-3. So it was great to see. It saved our bullpen.”
The Phillies are being very careful watching the workloads of their young pitchers. Eflin was so efficient that taking him out was never discussed in the dugout.
“After about five innings, I looked at the pitch count and I was like, 'Is that right?'” Mackanin said incredulously.
Eflin was asked when he started thinking he had a chance for a complete game. You might like his answer.
“As soon as I stepped on the mound,” he said. “I always have that mentality. I want to go as long as I can.”
Of course, some outings have been shorter than others. That first game in Toronto comes to mind. Eflin walked three and gave up three homers.
"He was nervous," Mackanin said.
“I learned a lot after that outing, unfortunately,” Eflin said. “But that was a good thing at the same time.”
The Phillies have won seven of their last eight and three in a row. They clicked in all phases Tuesday night. They turned four double plays behind the sinkerballer Eflin. They continued to hit for power with four solo homers. (That’s six homers in two days against the Braves and 13 extra-base hits in all.)
“Guys are still swinging the bats pretty well,” Mackanin said.
That’s an understatement.
The Phillies are hitting .317 (160 for 505) over the last 14 games. That’s tops in the majors over than span.
Peter Bourjos, Cody Asche, Tommy Joseph and Maikel Franco all homered for the Phillies. Franco has homered in three straight games and leads the club with 16.
Bourjos has hit in 14 straight games at a .463 clip (25 for 54).
But the story of the night was Eflin. He’s not going to throw 92-pitch complete games every time out. He’ll have his ups and downs as he continues to develop. But this performance offered a glimpse of the talent he has. Velasquez, Eickhoff and Aaron Nola have shown theirs this season, as well. The Phillies do have some arms to build around.
“It's very encouraging to see those guys,” Mackanin said. “We just have a lot of good young pitchers. It's fun to watch.”