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MLB Wild Card: Zach Eflin, Jose Alvarado help Phillies shut out Braves

The Phillies took a crucial win on Thursday night in their quest to break a 10-year post-season drought, and they may also have found a bullpen weapon for the final days of the regular season and beyond.

Zach Eflin came out of the bullpen in the top of the seventh inning and registered five big outs as a substitute for Ranger Suarez to help secure a vital 1-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves in front of a crowd of 21,276 in chilly Citizens Bank Park .

Jose Alvarado, mostly a setup man, retired the last four outs, two by strikeout, and earned the save.

Four days after being swept by the Braves in a three-game run in Atlanta, the Phillies opened this four-game series with a win, mainly thanks to their pitching.

“Tight game, a lot of pressure and our pitching really came through,” said manager Rob Thomson. “Ranger gave us some length that we really needed, and Eflin and Alvarado were both great.

“It’s huge to win that game. They’re a really good ball club. The crowd was great. I’m not sure how many people were here, but they were noisy. There was a lot of enthusiasm and excitement, so it was good.” And it was a nice cool night, so it was like a play-off game.”

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One evening after having scored five hits against Toronto, including a game winner in the bottom of the tenth inning, Matt Vierling drove home the lone run of the game with a sacrifice fly to Max Fried in the second inning.

The win was the Phillies’ 82nd season of the season, marking a second consecutive winning season, but this team wants more. And with a payroll of over $230 million, it needs more.

The Phillies were 2½ games behind Milwaukee for the third and final wildcard spot in the National League with 13 games left. San Diego is in second place, but the Phils are only half a game back.

The Phils magic number for getting a berth after the season is 10.

Suarez, who last week in Atlanta threw six innings of a one-run ball in a losing attempt against the Braves, again hit six innings. This time he didn’t allow a run.

No one in the Phillies clubhouse felt better after the win than Eflin.

A starter during his seven seasons with the Phillies, he missed nearly three months with pain and inflammation in his surgically repaired right knee. As time of the season ran out, he was unable to build a backup as a starter, so he set his sights on a return as a reliever. He threw a low-pressure inning in Miami last week and another at home this week before Thomson called him into a big spot in this one.

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Eflin responded brilliantly. He only needed six pitches to make it through seventh. He came back for the eighth and struckout two batters before handing the ball to Alvarado.

“It was great,” Eflin said. “For the past three months, when I was down, I dreamed of being out there and being competitive again. That’s all I want, to be competitive.”

Thomson plans to continue using Eflin in pressure situations. His fresh arm could be a boost at a time when several relievers are running on fumes.

Pitching relief requires a different mindset than starting. Eflin is ready and wants to be used.

“It’s quite different,” he said. “Normally, in the first inning of a start, your heart beats faster and you have butterflies, but there’s nothing like coming in in the seventh inning of a one-run game against the Braves.”

Thomson said he doesn’t have a defined closer, that he could use some relievers in the role. He has used Brad Hand, Seranthony Dominguez and David Robertson. All have been having a hard time of late as the workload has increased. Add Alvarado to the list of relievers who could be closer in the future. Hurry up, it’s possible that Eflin will get some reps in that role as well. The one who can get pressure is the man.

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The Phillies didn’t exactly tear the cover off the ball on Thursday night. They collected only six basehits, but two of them came in the second inning before Vierling’s sacrifice fly. JT Realmuto set up the sacrifice fly by moving first to third on a single to the right by Jean Segura.

“That was the game of the game,” Thomson said of Realmuto’s singles.

Bryce Harper’s battle in September continued. He was 0 for 4 with a few strikeouts. In 17 games this month, he is 10 for 65 (.154) with 24 strikeouts.

“He’s just in between,” Thomson said. “He gets it back.”

Friday night would be a good time for Harper to get it back. The Phils are up against a right-handed Jake Odorizzi. Aaron Nola will start for the Phillies.

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