The Philadelphia Phillies open an intriguing three-game series on Monday night at Citizens Bank Park against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Interest in this series comes from a number of angles for Phillies fans. For many, that starts with the return to South Philly for the final time in the regular season of Chase Utley.
The former World Series hero and future Phillies Wall of Famer has announced his retirement at the conclusion of the 2018 season. He would only return again should the two teams meet in the postseason.
Another angle is the return of Manny Machado. The longtime Baltimore Orioles star was dealt to Los Angeles last week in exchange for a package of five minor league prospects.
The Phillies were rumored to be after Machado for weeks. They are believed to have finished as runners-up in the trade negotiations and will likely be serious bidders and leading contenders for his long-term services in the coming off-season.
I say the “return” because Machado has already faced the Phillies in three games this month while still with Baltimore. He went 3-12 with a double, two walks, a run scored, and an RBI during what were three Orioles losses.
Perhaps the most important of those items of interest is the fact that this is a match-up between a pair of first place ball clubs. The Phillies (55-43) hold a one-game lead over Atlanta in the NL East Division. The Dodgers (55-44) carry a 1.5 game edge over Arizona and a two-game lead on Colorado into this series.
For the Phillies, right-hander Zach Eflin will return to the mound to start in the opener. It will be the first start since prior to last week’s MLB All-Star Game break for the 24-year-old hurler.
Eflin has already faced Los Angeles once this season. Back on May 28 at Dodger Stadium he was drilled for five earned runs and seven hits, lasted just four innings, and suffered the loss during an 8-2 victory by the host Dodgers. Both Matt Kemp and Max Muncy homered off him that night.
In his last outing on July 9, Eflin went five innings in the first game of a doubleheader at Citi Field in what turned out to be a 10-inning walkoff victory for the host New York Mets. He allowed three earned runs on five hits, striking out four and walking none on the night, with 58 of his 84 pitches going for strikes.
After that start, Eflin developed a blister on the middle finger of his right (pitching) hand. The team decided to replace him with Enyel De Los Santos for what had been his regularly scheduled start last Sunday in Miami. The Phillies placed him on the 10-day disabled list, and the thinking was that he would have the entirety of the break to fully heal.
Per Jesse Morris, M.D. at thefantasydoctors.com: “As we know (think Rich Hill & Aaron Sanchez) these can linger and take a long time to heal.” Per Morris, that healing can take as long as six weeks in some cases. Eflin is returning quickly, and the hope is that he will suffer no setbacks and pick his season right back up where it left off.
Eflin has performed like a front-line starting pitcher this season. He will carry a 7-2 record with a 3.15 ERA and a 3.04 FIP into this start. In his first dozen outings, Eflin has allowed 60 hits over 68.2 innings with a 67/14 K:BB ratio.
Count the skipper of the New York Yankees, Aaron Boone, among those impressed by Eflin. After the righty had tossed seven shutout innings in a 3-0 victory over the Bronx Bombers on June 28, Boone commented as follows per Bill Evans of NJ.com:
“Fastball both sides of the plate, mixing in the slider. I knew we had a tough customer coming in. I know he’s been pitching well. Really, we saw three good pitchers for the Phillies in this series and Eflin, you can see why they’re kind of excited about him. I thought he threw the ball really well and really was in command, and he kind of shut us down.”
That is the Eflin that the Phillies need to see tonight, and over the remainder of the season. Quality starting pitching has been the single biggest factor in the club’s rise to the top of the divisional standings, and Eflin has provided a large share of that quality.