Phillies pitcher Zach Eflin overcame tragedy to become one of MLB’s biggest surprises

Philadelphia Phillies starter Zach Eflin was too young to remember the grief and mourning, but is painfully aware of the the sorrow and heartache that tore his family apart.

He can’t recall the day his parents came home from the hospital to let them know his 7-year-old sister, Ashley, died of leukemia, but the rest of the images are vivid, and still intense in his life.

He remembers all too well his mother’s alcoholism that left deep and dark scars. The divorce. The severe financial distress on the family. The family leaving home and living with his grandparents for survival.

“You don’t ever forget things like that,’’ Eflin tells USA TODAY Sports. "How can you? You just can’t.’’

It was his father, Larry Eflin, who kept the family together. He worked long hours of maintenance at the University of Central Florida. The job didn’t pay much, and there were plenty of times they were in need of financial assistance, but he would always protect his family, supporting three young children on his own.

There is the oldest, Brittany, who became the mother of the house with Cathy Eflin unavailable due to her alcoholism, leading to three DWIs in 10 years. There is his sister Candace, who has special needs after being born with global developmental delay. And there is Zach.

They never had much of a childhood in Oviedo, Florida, but always had one another, surviving on love and faith.

“That’s why I want to inspire anybody who ever had family issues,’’ says Eflin, whose grandfather was a pastor for 60 years. “You can fulfill a dream even when things aren’t going your way.

“I am living proof of that.’’

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Eflin  says he still has trouble digesting his ascension to the ranks of baseball’s elite.

Really, it’s hard for him to believe he’s even a major-league pitcher, let alone the surprise anchor of the Phillies’ rotation.

Wasn’t it nine years ago when he told his dad that he was quitting baseball his junior year of high school?

Wasn’t it five years ago when he was traded twice in 24 hours from the San Diego Padres to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Matt Kemp deal and then the Dodgers to the Phillies for Jimmy Rollins?

Wasn’t it three years ago when he had double knee surgery?

Now, this 25-year-old is performing like a pitcher who may be at the All-Star Game in Cleveland come July. He has more complete games (two) by himself than 29 other entire teams in baseball. He's 5-3 with a 2.47 ERA and 1.02 WHIP, sixth in the National League in both categories.

In his last three starts, he is 3-0 with a 1.39 ERA, yielding just two runs, 15 hits and two walks. He became the first Phillies pitcher since Hall of Famer Roy Halladay in 2011 to have multiple complete games in the team's first 38 games.

“It stuns me every day, it really does,’’ says Larry Eflin, a former football player at Temple. “Never in a million years did I ever imagine that he’d be a major-league baseball player, let alone pitching in Philadelphia.

“For this family to go through what it did, and to see the man Zach has become after all of this, what can you say, it’s a blessing.’’

Zach Eflin is the only pitcher in the majors with two complete games. (Photo: Eric Hartline, USA TODAY Sports)

Zach, who talks to his dad virtually every day, calls him his best friend in life. Brittany, who moved from Arizona and is now living at the Eflin home with her three-month-old baby, is the mom Zach never had.

And, there is Candace, 27, who had a deprivation of oxygen at birth, but donated bone marrow at the age of 2 ½, extending Ashley’s life by almost a year.

“Candace is the glue to that family,’’ says Jered Goodwin, a close family friend, who was Eflin’s high school coach and now an assistant coach at Florida International University. “She is the energy. She is the one they all look up to. She’s the one who has helped the family through the tough times, providing the calmness for Zach.’’

Candace will tell you that Zach is her hero, but she’s got it completely wrong, Zach says. Candace is his hero. His role model. His inspiration. The fabric of his existence.

“She means everything to me,’’ Eflin says, “I can’t thank God enough for putting her in my life. She’s helped me overcome so many things in my life.

“I truly believe everything happens for a reason.’’

The Eflin family insists that Candace, and not Zach, actually has the best arm in the family. When Larry and Candace Eflin visited Zach last summer, they went to Citizens Bank Park on the Phillies’ off-day. Zach and Larry started playing catch, just like the days growing up, when Larry was his Little League coach.

“Finally, Zach looks at me, and says, “Why am I throwing to you?’’ Larry said. “Let Candace pitch.’ Well, she got on the mound, stepped on the rubber, and threw a perfect strike.

“It was such a special moment.’’

And one that Eflin hopes to repeat in the next few weeks, only this time, in front of a packed house at Citizens Bank Park. He is working on the logistics of having Candace throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Phillies game.

“I’d have to wear a T-shirt,’’ Larry Eflin said, “because all of my buttons would be popping off.’’

This is a journey that would have broken so many along the way, but Eflin refused to succumb, relying on his faith and love for his family. Oh, sure, maybe he was misguided at times, like when he quit the high school baseball team, telling his father he instead was going to play on the golf team. Larry told him it was fine, but he wasn’t going to just quietly walk away. He had to walk into Goodwin’s office and tell him to his face.

The only words that came out were Eflin apologizing words to Goodwin and all his teammates for walking out on them for two weeks, and that junior year, he blossomed from a gangly kid to a man.

“It seems like he went from 15 to 30 years old,’’ Goodwin said. “He had a young soul, but grew up fast. We talked about life experiences, faith, and everything he had been through.

“He wanted something bigger in life.’’

Says Larry Eflin: “I think that’s when the maturity really struck. That’s when it finally dawned on him, and when it really kicked in, trying to be the best he could be in baseball. He got focused on something.’’

Eflin, who grew seven inches in high school to 6-foot-6, developed into one of the prized pitchers in all of Florida. He was drafted with the 33rd pick by the Padres in 2012, yielding an 0.51 ERA at Paul J. Hagerty High School, striking out 58 batters in 43 innings. The Padres gave him a $1.1 million signing bonus.

How did he splurge?

He bought a used 2007 F-150 truck. He since has stepped up his game to a new 2014 Dodge Ram.

He grew up in the simple life, and isn’t about to change now, still living in Oviedo during the winter with his longtime girlfriend, Lauren Detton. He calls home every single time before he pitches, just as he will Thursday morning before his start against the Milwaukee Brewers, talking to his dad and Candace, who will offer advice and prayers.

He chats three or four times a week with Goodwin about pitching mechanics and strategy. And he remains so close with his high school buddies that he has 10 of them flying out Thursday to spend the weekend.

Eflin may be one of the hottest pitchers in the game, and certainly the best in the Phillies’ young season, but don’t bother trying to get him bragging about his feats. He talks about the advice and leadership from veterans Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter. He’ll credit every pitching coach he’s had in his major-league career, from Bob McClure to Rick Kranitz to Chris Young.

Yet, as they all try to tell him, the man responsible is Eflin himself, changing from a sinkerball pitcher to one who now backspins the ball with ha 94-mph four-seamer, throws a fabulous slider, and when he’s not inducing soft contact, can go for the strikeout, with pinpoint control.

“He’s so competitive,’’ Young said, “[Bench coach] Rob Thompson compared him to a Mike Mussina. He’s got such a good head on his shoulders, and really one of the best teammates you’ll ever find.’’

And, of course, the ultimate inspiration.

There may be a day Eflin will find peace, and even forgiveness, repairing a severely strained relationship with his mother. Larry Eflin doesn’t speak with his ex-wife, but his daughters do. They say time heals all wounds, but this one, Larry says, needs more time.

“It was such a devastating time for everyone when we lost Ashley,’’ Larry says. “The wheels just fall off. You get so much support from everyone during the illness, but as soon as the child passes, you’re all alone again.

“If it wasn’t for my children, I wouldn’t be here. They mean everything to me. And to see what Zach is doing, all I can tell you is that it’s a blessing for our whole family.’’

Zach will drive his truck to Citizens Bank Park on Thursday morning, make a call to his dad, talk to Candace, and chat with Brittany, whose baby is named Harper Elizabeth, the same middle name of their sister, Ashley.

“I’m going to tell him what I always tell him,’’ Larry Eflin says. “How proud we are of him. How much we love him.

“And, I’m going to tell him, 'Keep that ball down.' ’’

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