The Phillies picked up a crucial victory in their quest to break a 10-year postseason drought Thursday night, and they may have also found a bullpen weapon for the closing days of the regular season and beyond.
Zach Eflin came out of the bullpen in the seventh inning and hit five big outs to the relief of Ranger Suarez to help in an important 1-0 win over the Atlanta Braves in front of a crowd of 21,276 at the chilly Citizens Bank Park.
Normally a setup man, Jose Alvarado made the last four outs, two of them by strikeout, and earned the save.
Four days after being defeated by the Braves in a three-game series in Atlanta, the Phillies opened that four-game series with a win, thanks largely to their pitching.
“Tight play, a lot of pressure and our pitching really took off,” said manager Rob Thomson. “Ranger gave us some length that we really needed and Eflin and Alvarado were both great.
“Winning this game is huge. They’re a really good ball club. The crowd was outstanding. I’m not sure how many people were there, but they were loud. There was a lot of enthusiasm and excitement, so it was good. And it was a nice, cool night, so it was like a playoff game.”
One night after scoring five hits against Toronto, including a game winner in the bottom of the 10th inning, Matt Vierling drove home the only run of the game with a sacrifice fly against Max Fried in the second inning.
The win was the Phillies’ 82nd win of the season, securing a second straight season, but this team wants more. And with a payroll of more than $230 million, more is needed.
The Phillies went 2½ games ahead in Milwaukee and earned the third and final wildcard spot in the 13-game National League. San Diego holds second place, but the Phils are only half a game behind.
The Phils’ magic number for a postseason spot is 10.
Suarez, who pitched six innings with one-run ball in a loss to the Braves in Atlanta last week, went six innings again. This time he didn’t allow a run.
No one in the Phillies clubhouse felt better after the win than Eflin.
During his seven seasons with the Phillies, he was a starter and missed almost three months with pain and inflammation in his surgically repaired right knee. With time running out in the season, he couldn’t rebuild himself as a starter, so he vowed to return as a substitute. He pitched one low-pressure inning in Miami last week and another at home this week before Thomson challenged him at a big point in this one.
Eflin responded brilliantly. It only took him six pitches to get through the seventh. He came back for the eighth and batted two before handing over to Alvarado.
“It was great,” said Eflin. “For the last three months, when I was down, I dreamed of being back out there and being competitive. That’s all I want is to be competitive.”
Thomson plans to continue using Eflin in pressure situations. His fresh arm could be a boost at a time when multiple auxiliaries are running with steam.
Throwing for relief requires a different mindset than starting. Eflin is ready and wants to be used.
“It’s a lot different,” he said. “Usually in the first inning of a start your heart is racing and you’ve got butterflies, but there’s nothing like coming in in the seventh inning of a one-run game against the Braves.”
Thomson said he hasn’t specified one, he could use a number of helpers in the role. He has used Brad Hand, Seranthony Dominguez and David Robertson. All have been struggling lately as the workload has built up. Add Alvarado to the list of helpers who could work more closely in the future. Shoot, it’s not out of the question that Eflin will also get some reps in this role. Whoever can put pressure on will be the guy.
The Phillies didn’t exactly rip the cover off the ball Thursday night. They only had six hits, but two of those came in the second inning ahead of Vierling’s victim fly. JT Realmuto set up the sacrifice fly by going from first to third on a base hit by Jean Segura to the right.
“It was the game of the game,” Thomson said of Realmuto’s baserunning.
Bryce Harper’s September struggles continued. He was 0 for 4 with a pair of strikeouts. In 17 games this month, he’s 10 for 65 (.154) with 24 strikeouts.
“He just gets caught in between,” Thomson said. “He’ll get it back.”
Friday night would be a good time for Harper to get it back. The Phils face a right-hander in Jake Odorizzi. Aaron Nola will start for the Phillies.
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