Carlos Santana placed his hands on his head and neared first base in defeat. Trying desperately to pull himself from a season-long funk, Santana had crushed a ball 410 feet and over the center-field fence in the fifth inning Monday night. But San Francisco centerfielder Gorkys Hernandez leaped against the Citizens Bank Park wall and grabbed it.
The Phillies blamed Santana’s slump on poor luck. Manager Gabe Kapler called him the unluckiest hitter in baseball. And here Santana was again, with his hands on his head and cursing what he thought was his bad luck. But the ball slipped from Hernandez’s glove and landed for a home run. What once looked like a hard-luck out became one of the four homers the Phillies hit in an 11-0 win. His home-run trot resumed. Santana’s luck may be starting to shift.
Santana’s three-run homer was his fifth hit in the last four games. All five hits have been for extra bases. It took Santana 22 games to record his previous five extra-base hits. His OPS (.653) has risen 84 points since Friday. Santana is still hitting the ball hard, but he’s been finding a way to miss gloves. Barely. Santana is finally showing signs that his slump is starting to snap.
“All of us we’re like, ‘Oh, no,’ ” Kapler said. “He’s had so much bad luck this year and he’s hit so many balls hard with not a lot to show for it. The entire dugout was pulling for him and pulling for that ball to be a homer. So we were like, ‘Did he catch it? Did he not catch it?’ At the end of the day it went over the fence and that’s all that matters.”
The Phillies’ home-run barrage accounted for 10 of their 11 runs and was plenty for Zach Eflin, who was greeted with a standing ovation as he walked off the mound with a 10-0 lead and two outs in the seventh. The righthander struck out nine and walked three. He has allowed just one run in 12 2/3 innings over his first two starts of the season.
Eflin stressed throughout spring training that he felt at full strength for the first time since having surgery on both knees at the end of the 2016 season. Perhaps this is what a healthy Eflin looks like. He now starts his delivery from the third-base side of the rubber, which he said benefits his slider. With his knees healthy, he has been able to get more extension in his throwing motion and a longer stride toward home plate. He seems like a different pitcher.
“It’s more trying to become a guy who can blow people away. It’s more of being aggressive from the first pitch of the game,” Eflin said. “There’s games in the past where I kind of just nibbled the corners or not really thrown pitches aggressively. It’s changing. I have to do that every pitch. My stuff plays up a lot more now that I am aggressive with every pitch. I’ve kind of taken it that way.”
The pitcher’s velocity on Monday — Eflin threw his four-seam fastball with an average velocity of 94.2 mph — is slightly increased from where it was last season. But more important, a healthy Eflin seems to be throwing his pitches with more conviction. He recorded 14 swinging strikes on Monday after averaging just 6.6 per start last season. He relied on the four-seam fastball for 52 percent of his 109 pitches and used it to send five batters down looking. Eflin’s pitches were not only faster, but they had more bite.
“We’ve been talking a lot about, will Ef be able to miss enough bats to be really, really effective at this level? Tonight, he was able to do just that,” Kapler said. “And if you can do it once, you can do it over and over. His stuff might just be that good. That was really exciting.”
Eflin pitched almost the entire night with a comfortable lead. Odubel Herrera hit a three-run homer on the first pitch he saw in the first inning. He homered again in the sixth and has reached base in 36 consecutive games, the third-longest streak by a Phillies player since 2000. Cesar Hernandez’s two-run homer in the fourth landed 429 feet away in the second deck in right field. Jesmuel Valentin recorded his first major-league hit and Seranthony Dominguez retired the three batters he faced in the eighth to make his major-league debut.
Santana drove in another run in the eighth with a groundout, three innings after he watched his homer fall out of the centerfielder’s glove. Maikel Franco stood confused between second and third as Hernandez crashed to the ground. He, too, thought Santana’s homer was an out. Giants reliever D.J. Snelten pumped his fist and ran toward home plate, awaiting the relay throw from center field. Instead, Santana finally had luck on his side. And the Phillies had a rout.
“It’s a long season like everyone knows,” Santana said. “The first month wasn’t too positive, but I’ll be fine and everything will change. I have a new approach and I’m getting to have more hard contact like I’ve been doing. We have four and a half months left to play. It’s a long season and I’ll try to finish strong.”