Division-leading Phillies Feeling Good About How They've Matched Up Vs. NL East

South Philadelphia received a heavy dose of rain on Sunday. It poured all morning to the point that around 1 p.m., the Phillies announced their series finale with the Nationals would likely begin in a delay. 

Then it stopped, and the Phils were surprisingly able to start on time at 2:05, even though light rain continued all afternoon. 

The Phillies did not want this game to be postponed and for good reason. The Nationals were depleted, missing their three best hitters (Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Trea Turner) and both power-hitting first basemen (Matt Adams, Ryan Zimmerman). If there was any way to get the game in, the Phillies wanted it to be played.

They prepared as if they would start on time, while the Nationals came out in the first inning looking unprepared. Two errors in the Nats' infield within the first six plays of the game led to two early runs for the Phillies, which was all Zach Eflin needed. Eflin dazzled again on Sunday in the Phillies' 7-1 win, throwing first-pitch strikes to 21 of 26 hitters en route to seven innings of one-run ball (see observations).

With a first-pitch strike rate of 71.8 percent, Eflin is mere decimal points behind Max Scherzer for the major-league lead. 

He also helped the Phillies at the plate, laying down a perfect bunt with runners on the corners to score one of the Phillies' five runs in a game-breaking sixth inning. 

"It's exactly how you write it up," said Andrew Knapp, who caught Eflin on a rare day off for J.T. Realmuto. "That's back-to-back starts he's been able to do exactly what he's wanted to do. He's in every single corner, and again today, we really executed fastballs up in the zone."

Through seven starts, Eflin is 4-3 with an even 3.00 ERA. He's had strong runs like this every year of his major-league career but has often followed them by being hit hard. This is among the best and most sustainably effective Eflin has looked, though. He's getting outs by missing bats and by generating groundballs, and he's attacking while rarely nibbling on the corners. 

"I've come a long way from just chucking it up there and hoping it gets hit right to somebody," Eflin said. "Missing some barrels, getting weak contact when I need to. It's really just having a better understanding of who I am and what I need to do in certain counts."

The league will notice how many first-pitch strikes Eflin has thrown and teams will likely start trying to ambush him. 

What then?

"I really don't care if people know I throw a lot of first-pitch strikes," Eflin said. "If it's moving away or moving in, moving up or down, that's really what matters. Just gotta stay locked in."

The Phillies are 6-2 in their last eight games, averaging 6.0 runs. They're 19-14 overall and 15-9 against the NL East. They've played nearly one-third of their division games already but now have a break from division rivals for nearly six weeks. Starting Monday, the Phils will play 35 straight games before facing another NL East team. 

So far, the Phillies have been the least-flawed team in the division, even though they only fired on all cylinders the first week of the season. 

"We feel pretty good about it," Knapp said of their NL East record. "We've let a couple of games go but we haven't played our best baseball yet, which is encouraging. This is gonna be a big road trip for us, just to keep the ball rolling from this homestand."

Next up: the Cardinals and Royals in the show-me state. 

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