ST. PETERSBURG — Somewhere along the slow-moving parking lot that is Interstate 4 on the evening of March 22, Zach Eflin patiently was trying to do everything, be everywhere, all at once.
Just hours earlier, the Rays right-hander had been conducting his usual spring training workout at Tropicana Field when the call came from his home in Orlando.
It was time. Their twin daughters were ready to be born, Eflin’s wife, Lauren, told him.
“It was kind of a nightmare situation, just getting everybody where they needed to go and then being able to go see my wife,” the soft-spoken Eflin recalled. “It was a lot.”
He drove from St. Petersburg to Orlando, picked up his daughter, her nanny, and the family dogs, and dropped them off where they needed to go. It took three hours.
“It was another 45 (minutes) out to the hospital,” Eflin said. “But it was all worth it. Luckily, Lauren was able to hold off a little longer.”
The family last week welcomed twin girls Hallie Laine and Austen Renae to the world. Now, Eflin is settling back into the less frantic world of being a big-league pitcher. He will make his first regular-season start for the Rays on Saturday, when they continue their season-opening series against the Tigers at the Trop.
“It feels amazing. You know it’s really interesting being a father of one, one day and then the next day a father of three, but they’re doing great,” Eflin said before Thursday’s win over the Tigers. “They’ll still be in the NICU probably for another week. Mama’s doing great. So it’s kind of been an eventful past five-six days, but we’re finally here at opening day and ready to roll.”
His calm under pressure and the easy-going nature, along with an ability to attack hitters in the strike zone is exactly why the Rays this winter signed Eflin, 28, to the largest free-agent contract in total value (three years for $40 million) in team history.
“He’s steady,” said catcher Christian Bethancourt, who knew Eflin from his days in the Phillies organization. “He’s a veteran, he has a lot of experience. He’s not going to get forced into changing. Zach’s going to throw strikes, he’s going to go right after hitters no matter what.”
That did not alway translate into success with the Phillies. A contact pitcher who was throwing in front of a team that did not play good defense, Eflin had a 4.04 ERA in 20 appearances, including 13 starts, last season.
The indicators were positive, however. Eflin ranked in the top 91 percentile among big-league pitchers in walk rate (4.8%) and was in the 96th percentile in average exit velocity on hits against him.
The Rays also liked that Eflin, whose two fastballs (four-seamer and sinker) average 93 mph, gives batters a different look than their stable of hard-throwing, power pitchers.
“I think we have so many guys that are maybe maybe power and stuff over command, and with Zach he’s got power but he really has command and some late life movement,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.
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“A lot of our guys are, you know, basically that four-seam carry at the top (of the strike zone) with some nasty breaking balls below. Eflin kind of gets there a little differently where he can pitch to the edges a little bit more, cut it in, sink it, and it doesn’t allow a lineup over a series to get comfortable with one approach.”
Though he gives the Rays a different look, Eflin has found common ground with his new teammates. The Phillies lost in the World Series to the Astros last season, and the Rays didn’t get out of the wild-card round.
“Having a kind of a heartbreak last season, kind of me with the Phillies and these guys here, we both got our hearts broken,” Eflin said. “Everybody in this clubhouse is just ready to get going. Ready to start fighting, ready to start competing.”
Eflin, the picture of calm amid the exciting chaos of his daughters’ dramatic arrival last week, is looking forward to a new start — and the more familiar excitement that comes with it.
“That’s one of the coolest things about this game is the continued amount of butterflies that you get when you’re out on the field, because that feeling never goes away,” Eflin said. “So we’re all excited to get going.”
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