PHILADELPHIA -- Gabe Kapler twice made a point this week to say any talk that something is wrong with Zach Eflin is overblown.
It started last Saturday in Pittsburgh, where Kapler and Eflin both said the right-hander felt “heavy” in four innings against the Pirates. The curious description of Eflin’s struggles followed his July 4 struggles in Atlanta, where a 13-pitch at-bat to Ronald Acuña Jr. to start the game fatigued him. But even if Eflin is 100 percent healthy, something is not right. He allowed 10 runs (six earned runs) in 2 2/3 innings Saturday night in a 15-7 loss to the Braves at Citizens Bank Park.
“I felt fine,” Eflin said. “Everything felt fine.”
The loss dropped the Phillies 7 1/2 games behind Atlanta in the National League East and kept them one game out of the second NL Wild Card.
“They have played better baseball than us,” Kapler said. “They have [beaten] us handily. It’s unacceptable. We have to be better. We’re a much better baseball team than we’ve shown against the Braves. We have to get better quickly.”
Eflin allowed a two-run home run to light-hitting outfielder Ender Inciarte with two outs in the second to make it 2-0. He then walked Braves pitcher Max Fried before Acuna crushed a two-run homer 447 feet into the visitors’ bullpen to make it 4-0. Sloppy defense contributed to the Braves’ seven-run third inning, but Eflin did not pitch well throughout. He has a 10.46 ERA (31 earned runs in 26 2/3 innings) in his past six starts. He has a 12.64 ERA (22 earned runs in 15 2/3 innings) in his past four.
It has been a troubling turn of events, especially considering Eflin carried a 2.83 ERA in 14 starts through June 19.
“It could be a lot of different things,” Eflin said. “I think it’s my job to figure out what it is and go back to what I was doing when I was doing good. So I’ll look at some video and have a couple conversations and kind of go from there.”
“He’s having a hard time hitting his spots, and these teams are really good,” Kapler said. “Tonight it looked like his velocity was there. Some of the sliders had bite to them. It wasn’t necessarily carrying through the zone like it does at times, but certainly we didn’t see any major dip in velocity.”
It is unclear if Eflin will make his next start.
“I don’t think that now is the right time to make that decision,” Kapler said.
Ironically, the Phillies used long man Cole Irvin with a four-run deficit in the sixth inning Friday night, instead of one of the Phillies’ more high-leverage relievers. Irvin allowed four runs in a 9-2 loss. It also made him unavailable Saturday, when they could have used him to eat innings. Instead, left-hander Ranger Suárez replaced Eflin in the third.
Suarez could not pitch Friday, despite throwing only 17 pitches the previous four days, because the Phillies said they are trying to ease him into his bullpen role. He entered the game against Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies, who was batting .394 with a 1.046 OPS against lefties.
Albies hit an 0-2 slider for a grand slam.
Phillies ace Aaron Nola will try to prevent the series sweep Sunday afternoon. Nola is 2-1 with a 1.51 ERA (eight earned runs in 47 2/3 innings) in seven starts since June 15. The other Phillies starters have a combined 6.36 ERA (93 earned runs in 131 2/3 innings) in 27 games in that span.
“We’ve got our ace on the mound,” Kapler said. “Tomorrow is a big game. It’s really important that we salvage this series.”