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Rays pitcher Zach Eflin keeping faith 'No. 1' during career year: 'I believe in God’s plan'

A knee injury limited Zach Eflin to 75.2 innings last season, the final year of his contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. Having yet another season shortened by injuries raised more questions about his durability and decreased his value on the open market.

Eflin approached his rehab the same way he’s navigated the other tragic and challenging events in his life: remain positive and keep trusting God’s plan.

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“Not the best timing,” Eflin said in an interview with The Athletic last year, referencing his injury and pending free agency status. “But I believe in God’s plan. I don’t really stray away from that. I’ve gone through a lot of things in my life that, in the moment, I can say, ‘Yeah, it sucked.’ But I think it’s really all how you rebound and you bounce back. I know one day that I’m going to be healthy. I’m going to throw 200-plus innings every year. That’s what I’m going to do. So I just got to keep reminding myself that. Really stay in the moment and just take every day as a blessing.”

There wasn’t enough time for Eflin to work his way back into the Phillies’ starting rotation when he finally returned last September, so he was used as a reliever during the team’s run to the World Series. He did not allow a run in his six appearances in the National League Championship Series and World Series.

Then the Tampa Bay Rays signed the 29-year-old to a three-year, $40 million contract this offseason — the most expensive free agent signing in team history. He is making the contract look like a bargain so far.

Eflin’s 11 wins in 2023 have already matched a career high, and they’re tied for the most in baseball through Monday’s games, while his 0.99 WHIP (Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched) is tied for the lowest among qualified pitchers. He has a career-low 3.36 ERA and is on pace to set a new career high in innings pitched as well (112.1 so far, needing just 51 more to match the 163.1 he pitched in 2019).

In his most recent start Friday, Eflin threw seven shutout innings to help Tampa Bay snap a five-game losing streak.

The adversity Eflin has gone through on the baseball field pales in comparison to what he’s endured in his personal life. His older sister, Ashley, died from leukemia when she was 7. Another sister, Candace, was born with global developmental delay, yet has been a source of inspiration for her family.

“She means everything to me,’’ Eflin told USA Today about his relationship with Candace. “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.’’

Eflin’s mom struggled with alcoholism, and his parents divorced in the aftermath of Ashley’s passing. The family’s oldest child, Brittany, became the mother of the house, while their father, Larry Eflin, worked in maintenance at the University of Central Florida to support his three young children and keep the family together.

Through all of it, Eflin has kept his faith at the forefront of his life. He has a tattoo of two hands clasped together in prayer on his left arm as a tribute to his late sister. Underneath the hands are the words, “Walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7, NKJV).

His confidence in Christ gives him a sense of peace and freedom every time he takes the field.

“Going out on the mound and throwing in front of 40,000 people doesn’t affect me whatsoever, because I know my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is above me, and He’s got my back,” Eflin said in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer last year. “Faith, to me, has always been No. 1. I’ve always lived a care-free life. I’ve always known that God has had my back through everything. Being a good person, being a good Christian — Heaven’s going to open its doors.”

The Rays own the second-best record in the American League at 61-42 and begin a two-game series with the Miami Marlins on Tuesday. Eflin is scheduled to start the second game of the series Wednesday.

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