If there was a snapshot that told the story of the Phillies’ crucial 12-3 win over the Washington Nationals on Wednesday night, it came in the bottom of the ninth inning when Bryce Harper approached Zach Eflin in the dugout and congratulated the right-hander on the biggest victory of his career.
Seeing Harper and Eflin side-by-side, sharing one of those teammate-to-teammate moments, with a season on the line, was fitting because they were the two key contributors in a win that kept the Phillies’ postseason hopes a-flicker with three games left in the season.
Harper, fighting through a bad back that required hours of pregame treatment, set a tone for the night when he snapped an 0-for-14 slump and drove a 425-foot homer over the left-field wall in the first inning. That was one of two homers that Harper hit in an individual performance that screamed, “We ain’t dead yet.”
“We had to win tonight,” manager Joe Girardi said. “That’s the bottom line.
“What Bryce did was huge. We needed it. He needed it. He got us off to a really good start early in the game. It’s so important to have his bat in the lineup. He was really hurting last night but he wanted to play. We need him.”
Andrew McCutchen, Didi Gregorius and Andrew Knapp also homered for the Phillies and Eflin made it all stand up by pitching into the ninth inning in what was really the most important start of his big-league career. The Phillies entered the game having lost four in a row to slip off the NL playoff grid. Eflin scattered six hits and three runs, walked one and struck out nine. In other words, he was a stopper on a night when the Phillies were desperate for one — and Harper told him that in the dugout.
“He simply said that was something the team really needed, a workhorse to go out and eat up some innings and pitch effectively,” Eflin said. “He was just making it known that this was a big start and a big step for us and we’re going to carry the momentum into the final series and hopefully the playoffs.”
The victory left the Phils at a game under .500. They are just a half-game behind second-place Miami in the NL East and the top two teams make the playoffs. The Marlins have lost four straight, including three in Atlanta, where they play again Thursday night.
The Phillies will be watching the Marlins on their last off day of the season before playing the final three games in Tampa Bay. They are all must-win games. Vince Velasquez, Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola are the scheduled pitchers and they need to come up big like Eflin did Wednesday night after four straight losses had blown a gaping hole in the Phillies’ postseason chances.
“I feel a pretty big responsibility every outing I have,” Eflin said. “Obviously, I knew going in that I needed to be on my game. But, to be honest, that’s how I feel before every start and nothing really changes. It was just another ballgame for me. Obviously, the stakes were higher but you don’t think about that out there. You think about executing pitches and getting ahead of guys, throwing strike 1, getting the first guy of the inning out and setting yourself up to have a good game.”
Eflin used his bread-and-butter sinker nicely, mixed in his four-seamer and slider and had his best curveball of the season. He threw a first-pitch strike to 18 of 30 hitters.
The curveball has been a much-improved pitch for Eflin this season.
Any secret to that?
“To be honest, I just stopped throwing it like a baby,” Eflin said. “I’m really aggressive with it now.”
Eflin has won his last two starts. In 15 innings in those two games, he’s given up just 10 hits, three runs and three walks. He has struck out 18. The 26-year-old right-hander is on top of his game. He lines up to pitch Game 1 of the playoffs for the Phillies next week — if they get there.
“That would be awesome,” Eflin said. “I want the ball. I’m not scared of the ball. If I’m the first guy, it would be an honor. I’m ready to attack hitters and get outs.”