Eflin drops duel vs. former team, close friend Nola

July 5th, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- Nine months and one day ago, closed out the victory that clinched the Phillies’ first trip to the postseason in 11 years. He pitched high-leverage innings throughout Philadelphia’s playoff run, from Game 1 of the National League Wild Card Series to Game 6 of the World Series.

But Eflin said he didn’t feel as jittery during any of those games as he felt facing his former team for the first time in the Rays’ 3-1 loss to the Phillies on Tuesday afternoon at Tropicana Field.

“It was like 50% excitement and 50% anxiety,” Eflin said.

Eflin’s nerves didn’t show up in his brilliant pitching performance, however, as he held the red-hot Phillies to only two runs on four hits while striking out nine without a walk over seven innings. But he was outdueled by his close friend and former teammate Aaron Nola, who limited the Rays to just a Wander Franco home run while striking out 12 over 7 1/3 outstanding innings.

Eflin was saddled with the loss, only his fourth of the season and his first at home for Tampa Bay, but his performance was one of the only positive takeaways as the Rays lost their third straight game and for the 12th time in their past 22 games.

“It sucks to have lost that game, obviously,” Eflin said. “But I'll tell you what, I enjoyed every single day I had competing with those guys. And it was fun to kind of throw it back and compete against them. There's just a bunch of tremendous people over there, and on top of that, I got to pitch against my best friend.”

Fittingly, Nola started the postseason-clinching win that Eflin finished last year. Nola is the Phillies’ longest-tenured player. Eflin had the second-longest big league tenure with the club, having debuted in June 2016 before becoming a free agent and signing a franchise-record three-year, $40 million deal with Tampa Bay. Eflin was a groomsman in Nola’s wedding this past December.

So, yes, even as well as he pitched, it was a little weird for Eflin to line up against Nola after spending seven years in his corner.

"We were with each other for so long, and he was nasty tonight, too,” Nola said. “That was vintage him. It was fun competing against him."

“I'm so thankful for Aaron's friendship and the mentorship and what kind of teammate he is. You always root for guys like that,” Eflin said. “He's been a big brother to me my entire career and really helped me kind of find myself in the big leagues, so it was really cool to … just kind of watch him from a distance this time.”

Unfortunately for the Rays, they saw Nola at his best. They had a couple one-out scoring opportunities early on but failed to capitalize until Franco took Nola deep to left-center field in the eighth inning for his 10th home run of the season.

“He beat us,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “We don't see him very often, but I like to think our offense can certainly find ways to get runs -- and we just didn't tonight.”

Eflin kept it close against his former teammates, throwing a season-high-tying 102 pitches over a season-high-tying seven innings. He retired the first five hitters he faced before giving up a run on back-to-back doubles by Bryson Stott and Alec Bohm. Eflin then retired 14 in a row before allowing another run on a Stott single in the seventh.

Eflin said it was emotional and strange to face “all nine hitters” in Philadelphia’s lineup, given their history together, but they had fun with it, too. Eflin noted there were “a lot of smiles, a lot of little tiny comments as people were running off the field,” and catcher Christian Bethancourt noticed Eflin took some time for pleasantries amid his excellent performance.

“Every time, the first time through the lineup, he was smiling and waving and saying hi to all of them,” Bethancourt said. “It felt like he was like, 'I got you guys.' Like, 'I'm good.' … It's getting to that point where it's normal to see Zach go six, seven innings with a very competitive outing.”

The next two days should feel a little more normal for Eflin, too. After focusing on his start in the series opener, he’ll have plenty of time to catch up with his old friends. He’ll receive his 2022 NL champions ring before Wednesday’s game.

“It was a lot of fun seeing a bunch of familiar faces,” Eflin said, “and I'm looking forward to the next few days.”