Gabe Kapler Lays Out Next Step for Zach Eflin After Dominant Start

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CHICAGO - When the wind is blowing out, Wrigley Field plays like Yankee Stadium. Not an easy place for a pitcher.

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When the wind is blowing in, it plays more like AT&T Park. Not an easy place for a hitter.

For the first five or six innings Tuesday night, Zach Eflin took major advantage of the conditions, attacking the strike zone even more than he normally would because he knew it would take a heck of a blast for the Cubs to hit one out.

They obliged with a series of lazy fly balls that died in the middle of the outfield.

"It makes you want to go after them more," he said, "throwing more four-seam fastballs in particular. That's a night when you can just let them put it in the air."

The formula worked in a 6-1 win (see first take). Eflin allowed just one run and it came 23 outs into his start. He pitched 7⅔ innings filled with weak contact and was lifted only because of the back-to-back hits from Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

As well as Eflin was pitching, Gabe Kapler didn't want to remove him before then, even though it may have made sense to go to a lefty with Eflin at 100 pitches and the lefty Rizzo at the plate in the eighth.

The Phillies had a five-run lead at the time, which made Kapler's decision easier. But he also wanted to test his young right-hander and see what Eflin came up with.

"I saw it as player development," Kapler said. "I saw a guy who was composed, whose stuff was all there, who continued to attack the strike zone, wasn't backing down for a minute. 

"Here comes a left-handed hitter, we could have gone to (Adam) Morgan, for example, to record that out. But I thought that Eflin earned the opportunity to try to get through that inning. He was efficient all night long. From a visualization standpoint, you could see Rizzo hitting a groundball and us gobbling it up like we were doing for most of the night. 

"I thought he earned that opportunity and it was the right thing to do for his player development to give him a chance."

Eflin does not have a stranglehold on the No. 5 spot in the Phillies' rotation, but nights like this will tighten his grip. The Cubs hit two balls hard all night. 

Even more impressive was the way Eflin responded in the two highest-stress instances of the night. He struck out Bryant with runners on the corners to end the third, then struck out free-swinging Javier Baez with a fastball at his eyes with runners on second and third and one out the next inning.

Eflin is not a big strikeout pitcher. Those were his only two of the night. Because he so routinely attacks the strike zone, Eflin is a feast-or-famine pitcher. In 12 of his 28 career starts, he's allowed two runs or fewer. In 10 others, he's allowed at least five runs and been pounded around the yard.

His ERA is 3.74 through six starts, which any team will take from its fifth starter. But if Eflin can turn his above-average control into above-average command, he could be even better than that.

"He really attacks the zone in a special way," Kapler said. "It's still a control over command thing. When he gets that command to go with that control - and he's inching closer to it - you're gonna see more empty swings and you might still see early contact but it might be even weaker than it was tonight."

Could he benefit by being effectively wild from time to time?

"I just don't see that ever being the type of pitcher he is," Kapler said. "I see him being a refined version of himself and as that refined version of himself, I see his command in the strike zone developing. And so when he goes out of the zone, it will be by design."

After watching Eflin hold the Cubs in check, Aaron Nola, and his 2.14 ERA, get the nod Wednesday night. It's always a good feeling for this Phillies team to win an opener knowing Nola will be around to potentially seal a series victory. Especially after what just went down in San Francisco.

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