Eflin's efficiency gives Rays' rotation a reset

Control specialist shows fellow starters how it's done, pounding zone vs. potent Rangers

April 3rd, 2024

ST. PETERSBURG – Right-hander ’s outing Tuesday night against the Rangers accomplished many things for the Rays.

It gave the team’s overworked bullpen a bit of a rest. It took pressure off of the lineup. And one more thing, according to manager Kevin Cash:

“It settles the media a little bit about us walking too many guys.”

As the Rays’ staff has indeed struggled with throwing strikes, it was a good time to hand the ball to the pitcher who ranked second in the Majors in walk rate (3.4%) and WHIP (1.02) last season.

And so, Eflin climbed atop the Tropicana Field mound and did what he does best: work quickly and pound the zone. The right-hander surrendered one run on five hits and struck out five through 6 1/3 innings in Tampa Bay’s 5-2 victory.

The Rays’ arms, which allowed a franchise-record 26 walks through their first five games of the season, had been “uncharacteristically inconsistent,” Cash said before the game. However, Eflin was characteristically under control as he issued only one free pass to 25 batters faced.

It was a much-needed effort not only for the club but for Eflin, who faltered in the sixth inning against the Blue Jays on Opening Day and was knocked around for five runs over five innings against these Rangers in the game that ended Tampa Bay’s 2023 campaign.

“Every time I go out there, I try to stay in attack mode and really get ahead of guys,” Eflin said. “Pitching on the corners is the most important thing. It's easy to throw the ball down the middle and then throw a lot of strikes. But for me in particular, I’ve got to be on the corners. Whether it be sinker, cutter, everything's just got to be right on the black.”

Eflin has plenty of pitches at his disposal, but he leaned on those two specific offerings against Texas, crowding the inner half of the plate against dangerous lefty batters such as Corey Seager and Evan Carter, who combined to go 0-for-8 with one hard-hit ball between them.

One cutter to Carter in the fourth inning shattered the rookie’s bat, sent the barrel twirling past the mound and delayed the game momentarily so that shards of wood could be picked out of the turf.

“I kind of got back in a good cutter groove tonight,” Eflin said. “It was really an emphasis today to pound the guys in, especially the lefties.”

Tampa Bay’s offense began to support its ace in the third inning when Yandy Díaz picked up an RBI single on a chopper that deflected off Rangers starter Andrew Heaney’s glove and ended up carrying into right field, scoring José Caballero. That knock snapped an 0-for-11 skid for the reigning American League batting champion, who entered the game hitting .263 and whose longest drought last year was an 0-for-10 stretch from May 28-31.

“Yeah, he's going to be all right,” Cash said wryly.

Harold Ramírez and Isaac Paredes have also been slow out of the gate in 2024, with three hits in 32 at-bats entering Tuesday. But both played key roles in a four-run fifth that broke the game open.

It all developed with two outs as Rangers first baseman Jared Walsh, backpedaling into shallow right field, couldn’t glove a Díaz popup. Ramírez followed with a single -- one of his two hits on the night -- that knocked Heaney from the contest. Randy Arozarena drove in Díaz with an opposite-field single against reliever Yerry Rodríguez before Paredes delivered the crushing blow: a three-run shot off a hanging slider that ended up clacking off the left-field foul pole.

“We saw that [Rodríguez] was mixing in some breaking balls, so I was actually sitting there [on the] breaking ball first pitch I see,” Paredes said via team interpreter Manny Navarro.

There’s obviously plenty of time for the Rays’ lineup to find the form that made it arguably the second-best attack in the American League last year. Tampa Bay’s .776 OPS trailed only these Rangers (.789).

But this team desperately needed a steady hand to ease its recent pitching concerns. Eflin’s right one was, well, the right one.

“He really sets the tone for our rotation,” Cash said. “We needed a start like that.”