Zach Eflin's first big-league save might not be his last

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HOUSTON -- Zach Eflin nailed everything a closer is expected to Monday night.

Except the celebration.

He wasn't quite sure what to do after his first big-league save. He looked a little like Jim Valvano looking for someone to hug, though he wasn't running around like a crazy man.

"I was on the mound, looking around," he said Tuesday, the day after closing out the Phillies' postseason clincher. "Everybody was celebrating. I saw J.T. (Realmuto) coming. I was like, 'Come on, come a little quicker.' 

"It was awesome. I didn't really know what to do. I was envisioning what would happen out there. I was just hoping J.T. full-sprinted and jumped in my arms, but we'll save that for the World Series."

Lidge and Ruiz.

Eflin and Realmuto.

OK, we're getting ahead of ourselves here, but the scenario is at least possible now that the Phillies have punched their ticket to the October tournament.

And it might be a little more possible now that the Phillies have added a legitimate, fresh-armed bullpen weapon in Eflin.

In his first time pitching in the ninth inning as a reliever with a lead, Eflin closed out the Houston Astros on 14 pitches, 12 of them coming in a game-ending showdown with Mauricio Dubon. Eflin threw mostly sinkers, his bread and butter, at 94 mph, but mixed in a cutter and curveball.

The performance caught manager Rob Thomson's eye.

Thomson was asked after Monday night's game and again Tuesday if Eflin-as-closer could be a thing. Loath to tip his hand for strategic reasons, Thomson did not shoot down the idea.

"It all depends on the pocket of the lineup we're facing," he said.

In other words, Thomson will play the matchup game in selecting his closer for a particular game. Going into Monday night's game, he knew he was going to use Jose Alvarado and Eflin if a high-leverage situation arose late in the game. He chose the lefty Alvarado to get the final out of the seventh inning because a lefty was due up. Thomson stuck with Alvarado in the eighth because he liked the matchups and went to Eflin in the ninth for the same reason.

The bottom line here is you can add Eflin's name to the list of relievers who could close a game for the Phillies in the postseason. Thomson said he has ditched the idea of Eflin starting as an opener in front of Ranger Suarez because he likes the way Suarez has been throwing. (Obviously, he said that before Tuesday night's game.)

Alvarado can also close. So can Seranthony Dominguez, David Robertson and Brad Hand, if he checks out healthy in a simulated game Wednesday and is able to come off the injured list for Friday's playoff opener.

Dominguez, Robertson and Hand have all struggled at times in recent weeks. Fatigue might have been a factor. In Hand's case, injury was. Strikes have been an issue.

Strikes are Eflin's strength and Thomson said he'd be willing to sacrifice velocity for strikes. He also said it was not too late for Dominguez and Robertson to sharpen up and build some confidence when they get some work Tuesday or Wednesday. Both pitched Tuesday night and neither was sharp.

The bottom line is Thomson will have some late-game options when the Phillies play their first postseason game since 2011 on Friday in St. Louis, and Eflin will be a strong one.

It wasn't supposed to be this way, of course, for Eflin, 28. He's a starting pitcher and was looking forward to a big season as he built his free-agent platform in 2022. However, his surgically repaired right knee acted up and he did not make a start after June 25. He worked his way back as a reliever in September and has retired 24 of the 28 batters he has faced while allowing just one earned run over 7⅔ innings. He has walked none and struck out nine. 

After missing almost three months, Eflin's arm is fresher than most in the Phillies' bullpen. And pitching in short spurts out of the bullpen allows his stuff to play up, particularly his sinker.

"I'm not trying to feel anything out," he said. "I'm just going right after guys, being aggressive right out of the gate. When I have my good sinker, it's not an easy pitch to hit."

Eflin has one other thing that plays well as a late-game reliever. His heartbeat is slow. After 659⅓ big-league innings, he's developed plenty of poise.

"I'm pretty simple," he said. "I don't carry a lot of weight out there when I'm pitching. Honestly, I just imagine it being like a live batting practice in spring training or something. No stress. No nothing. I operate well when I do that. When the game gets too big in my head, I have some issues out there. I think I've done a pretty good job the last four or five years of really developing how to stay calm and stress-free out there. I'm not really worried about results. I'm just worried about pitch to pitch. When you simplify it like that, you get good results."

He got the results the Phillies needed Monday. His first big-league save -- in the most important game of the season -- might not be his last.

"It was fun," Eflin said. "It kind of felt like any other inning."

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