A few months ago, Phillies right-hander Zach Eflin came to a crossroads with a seldom-used weapon in his arsenal.
He had a curveball, but he rarely threw it, because he didn't often trust it.
Perhaps, he thought, he should ditch it. But then Eflin started to throw his curveball more aggressively. Phillies manager Joe Girardi liked it. He told Eflin that he should throw it more. Eflin finally unleashed his not-so-secret weapon with remarkable effectiveness in Saturday afternoon’s 4-1 victory over the Braves at Citizens Bank Park.
The victory helped the Phillies win five consecutive games for the first time since July 31-Aug. 5, 2018, and moved them to .500 for the first time since Aug. 18. Philadelphia can sweep Atlanta and move within one game of first place in the National League East with a victory in Sunday night’s series finale.
“For Zach, I’ve been thrilled with what I’ve seen,” Girardi said. “Today, he had it all.”
Eflin (2-1, 4.10 ERA) threw his curveball 19 times on Saturday -- two fewer than his career high -- as he dominated the Braves for seven innings before a 37-minute rain delay ended his afternoon. He allowed four hits, one run and struck out eight. It is the first time in his career that he struck out eight or more batters without a walk.
Eflin struck out six batters with his curveball. He had never previously struck out more than three batters in a game with it.
He has never struck out more than nine batters in a season with it.
“I’m not flipping it over for strikes anymore,” Eflin said. “I’m being aggressive with it and trying to create as much spin as possible with it. I think that’s complementing all my other pitches. It’s a confidence pitch. I trust it, just like I do with all of my weapons. We’re going to continue to use it. Now, it’s really kind of grip and rip -- think fastball the whole time and accelerate through the pitch. It’s been a huge learning point for me. I’m happy where it’s at, and I’m happy to continue moving forward with it.”
Eflin is known as a sinker-slider pitcher. They are his bread and butter, so perhaps it is no surprise that he threw his curveball only 7.5 percent of the time in his first four starts this season, well behind his sinker (56.6 percent), slider (17.3 percent), four-seam fastball (9.8 percent) and changeup (8.7 percent).
He threw the curveball only 5.4 percent of the time in 2019 and 5.7 percent of his pitches in '18.
Perhaps that percentage will start to increase if he continues to attack the strike zone. He threw 59 strikes out of 83 pitches (71.1 percent) on Saturday, while consistently working ahead in the count.
“He had them on defense the whole day,” Girardi said.
Some of it was part of the game plan, too. Eflin faced the Braves last Sunday in Atlanta. He threw only four curveballs that night, so he figured he could catch them off guard by throwing a bunch this time around.
“We knew that we were going to be in good shape, if it was working during the game,” Eflin said. “Obviously, it was. [Andrew Knapp] called a great game behind the dish, as always, and I just followed his lead and really just picked apart the puzzle.”
Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins provided the run support. Harper’s sacrifice fly in the first inning handed the Phillies a 1-0 lead. Hoskins’ three-run home run to left-center field in the fifth inning extended the lead to 4-0.
Hoskins is batting .282 (11-for-39) with four home runs, eight RBIs and a 1.070 OPS in his last 11 games. He gladly talked about his afternoon and his recent play, but he welcomed the opportunity to praise Eflin.
“The curveball is something that’s kind of been hot and cold for him,” Hoskins said. “He has had feel for it, then he’s lost it. But today, obviously, it was sharp. I think he got a lot of bad swings from some right-handed hitters. He got a couple ugly swings from Freddie [Freeman], which any time you can do that, it probably means the ball is doing some good stuff.”