Phillies-Rockies 5 Things: Zach Eflin Closes 1st Half in Colorado

[CSNPhily] Phillies-Rockies 5 things: Get ready for a slugfest tonight
Steven Tydings |

Phillies (41-48) at Rockies (40-47)
4:10 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies close out the first half of the season in Colorado as the All-Star break begins Monday.

Rookie Zach Eflin will be on the mound for the Phillies, as they look to split a four-game series with the Rockies, who send out Tyler Chatwood.

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Here's five things to know for the Sunday afternoon duel.

1. Taking stock of the Phillies' first half
It's not hard to say that the first 90 games went better than expected. For a team projected by many to win fewer than 70 games, 41 or 42 wins isn't bad. 

The Phillies were 29-62 at the All Star break last season. Regardless of outcome, they will finish with their best record at the break since 2013. That year, they were 48-48 before the All-Star Game. 

Since Opening Day, the Phils have been relatively healthy compared to other teams. They lost Charlie Morton to a season-ending injury while Vince Velasquez and Andrew Bailey spent time on the DL. Aaron Altherr is on his way back from wrist surgery he had in March.

Few could have expected the hot streak that ran from mid-April to mid-May. Led by Jerad Eickhoff, Aaron Nola and Velasquez (who can forget that 16 strikeout game?), the rotation bolstered the team to a torrid pace before the Cubs and others shoved the team well-below .500. 
Odubel Herrera proved his 2015 season was no fluke on his way to his first All-Star Game. Jeanmar Gomez and Hector Neris became a surpringly strong late-inning duo. Tommy Joseph showed his light-tower power while Maikel Franco's bat slowly heated up.

All in all, there was more good than bad considering expectations. Regardless of how the rest of the season turns out, the Phillies have displayed the promise one would hope they'd show after three straight years without a postseason berth.

2. What to look forward to
The Phillies' first half was filled with ups and downs and ended with a below .500 record. So what? There's plenty to watch out for in the 72 games left in the season. Here are some examples:

The trade deadline: Sure, there's no Phillies blockbuster deal waiting to happen like Cole Hamels last season. But there are some plenty questions for Matt Klentak and the front office to answer come Aug. 1. Should they auction off Jeremy Hellickson to the highest bidder? Does anyone outside of Philly actually want Ryan Howard? (Answer: Probably not.) Should the team just stay put? That's just a sampling.

Minor league reinforcements: The mouthes of fans are watering when they look at the sterling numbers of Jake Thompson in Triple A. Or the talent of J.P. Crawford. Or what Nick Williams brings to the table. Thompson is likely the first of that crew to reach the majors and by September, fans will get their first taste of the next generation of possible Phillies stars. It's exciting as the rebuilding starts to enter a new phase.

Rebound candidates: The end of the first half was ugly for Aaron Nola, yet he wasn't alone. David Hernandez, who the Phillies signed for the back end of their bullpen, has a 4.61 ERA. Howard looks to try and right the ship in the last chapter of his Phillies career. Those three and more have a chance to put the first half behind them and bounceback in the late summer.

3. Eflin on a roll
Zach Eflin isn't one of those rebound candidates. In fact, he probably wishes there was no All-Star break around the corner. 

Eflin's big league career started with a disastrous outing against an extremely hot Blue Jays team. Since then, he's showed his true mettle. In his four starts after his debut, he has a 2.03 ERA. He has allowed just 21 hits and two walks in 26⅔ innings. While he has struck out just 13 batters, he's done a good job of keeping the opponent in the ball park after three home runs in his debut.

His last start was a true beauty. He threw his first complete game at any level. Yes, it was against the worst offense in baseball and at home. But it's still an impressive feat for a 22-year-old pitcher to throw a complete game so early in his career. 

After needing 91 and 94 pitches, respectively, to complete six innings in previous two starts, it took just 92 pitches to retire 27 batters. He also recorded a career high six strikeouts and allowed just six baserunners in the game.

Eflin has given up more fly balls than ground balls in his limited sample size, and that can be a recipe for disaster at Coors Field. If he wants to keep his little hot streak going into the break without upping his swings and misses, he'll need to induce more weak contact like he did against the Braves.

4. Facing the Rockies' de facto ace
On Saturday, the Phillies faced a 26-year-old pitcher in search of his first big league win. On Sunday, they have to duel with a 26-year-old who is on top of his game.

The Rockies' pitching staff is filled with struggling veterans and the fledgling careers of their prospects. But Chatwood is an exception. The righty is in his fifth MLB season, fourth with the Rockies. While he has had seasons like this one before (check 2013), he's proving himself again after a significant injury.

That is, Tommy John surgery. While thorasic outlet syndrome appears to be all the rage among injured pitchers these days, Chatwood was one of many pitchers to need Tommy John in recent years, losing most of his 2014 and all of 2015 season with the injury. He also missed two weeks recently with a back injury.

But he's come out on the other side as a successful pitcher. In 90⅔ innings, he has a 3.08 ERA. If that doesn't impress you, his ERA+, which factors in the ballparks he pitches in and compares an ERA to league average, is 164, meaning he has been 64 percent better than an average pitcher this season. Essentially, when you factor in the fact he plays in the ultimate hitters park, that 3.08 ERA is pretty outstanding. 

How does he do it? Well, like any pitcher needs to do at Coors Field, he induces ground balls from hitters, sporting a 58.4 percent ground ball rate, which along with a low home run rate means he can limit a lot of extra base hits. He also has forced a career high in soft contact rate. 

As for his scouting report, he throws his low-to-mid 90s fastball and sinker about 68 percent of the time while mixing in his slider 20 percent of the time along with a few other offspeed pitches.

5. Players to watch
Phillies: Odubel Herrera is just a few days away from his first All-Star Game, but he will first try to break out of a small slump. He's hitless in his last 12 at-bats and 6 for his last 28, and still without a hit in this series after pinch hitting duties yesterday.

Rockies: This could be one of the last games in a Rockies uniform for Carlos Gonzalez, the slugging outfielder set to participate in the Home Run Derby on Monday. He has a .318 average and 18 home runs through Saturday, making him an elite asset for Colorado.

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