Eflin is a starter-turned-reliever because he missed two and a half months this season with an injured right knee. He had pitched only twice out of the bullpen since he returned from the injured list on Sept. 12, but he had pitched well. He seemed like another late-inning option for Thomson, especially with the heavy usage and recent struggles from relievers like David Robertson (4.70 ERA in his past seven appearances), Seranthony Domínguez (eight runs allowed in his past two), Brad Hand (6.48 ERA in his past 10) and Connor Brogdon (9.00 ERA in his past five).
Maybe Eflin could pitch in more high-leverage situations down the stretch?
“Absolutely, yeah,” Thomson said. “It could be tonight.”
Eflin pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings in the series-opening victory over the Braves. The win reduced the Phillies’ magic number to 10. They have a 2 1/2-game lead over the Brewers for the final NL Wild Card spot with 13 games to play. They are a half-game behind the Padres for the second NL Wild Card.
Eflin replaced Ranger Suárez to start the seventh inning and promptly retired Marcell Ozuna, Robbie Grossman and Dansby Swanson on six pitches. He then struck out William Contreras, hit Austin Riley with a pitch (the Phillies challenged the call, but the replay was inconclusive) and struck out Travis d’Arnaud to start the eighth.
Eflin threw 15 pitches, including 12 strikes.
“I’ve been waiting on that moment,” Eflin said. “I’ve prepared myself to pitch in any situation. … It’s a lot different. Typically, in the first inning of a start, your heart is racing. You have butterflies and stuff, but nothing like coming in in the seventh inning of a one-run game against the Braves, right? After I got out of the first inning and I was able to go down and sit in my normal spot where I sit as a starter and catch my breath, I kind of relaxed and felt like I always do. It was a lot of fun.”
Thomson said at some point he sees Eflin pitching back-to-back days, which would provide the Phillies more roster flexibility and security in the late innings as they try to lock up their first trip to the postseason since 2011.
Eflin sees that time coming, too. He said his body has responded well pitching out of the bullpen.
“I feel great,” he said. “I’ve woken up after each time I’ve thrown feeling great and telling Thoms that I’m ready to go. I feel like I’m ready for it.”
Besides Eflin, Thursday looked like a glimpse into the Phillies’ pitching future. Suárez allowed five hits in six scoreless innings. He struck out four and walked two. He has a 2.41 ERA in his past three starts, following a late August/early September bump in which he seemed to tire in the middle innings.
Suárez has a 2.27 ERA in his past 12 starts. The Phillies have not clinched anything yet, of course, but if they can line up their rotation the way they want in a best-of-three NL Wild Card Series, they likely will have Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola start Games 1 and 2.
Suárez seems like the obvious choice for Game 3.
José Alvarado replaced Eflin with two outs in the eighth. He recorded the final out of that frame, then pitched a scoreless ninth to earn his second save of the season.
“We found out a couple things with Alvarado,” Thomson said. “We wanted him, by the end of the year, to go one-plus and see if he can pitch in the ninth. He did both those tonight. He was really good.”
Alvarado has a 1.39 ERA in his past 37 appearances. He has struck out 54 and walked only 12 in 32 1/3 innings. If Thomson can count on Eflin and Alvarado to pitch multiple innings in high-leverage situations, including the eighth and ninth innings, when Robertson, Domínguez and Hand are unavailable, it creates more opportunities for success in Thomson’s mind.
When the Phillies’ bullpen was pitching well earlier this season, it clicked because they had a lot of late-inning options.
Domínguez. Robertson. Hand. Corey Knebel.
Anybody could close on any night, given the matchups and availability.
Thomson would love to keep it that way.
“I don’t consider anybody the closer,” he said. “It could be a number of guys really.”