Friday, May 11, 2012
Baseball has been a lifeline for Zach Eflin
By Brandon Parker
After taking up baseball as a kid to escape a difficult home life, Hagerty (Oviedo, Fla.) senior pitcher Zach Eflin is now a top MLB draft prospect.
As Hagerty (Oviedo, Fla.) coach Jered Goodwin scanned his bench for relief pitching options in the middle innings of the district title game two years ago, he kept coming back to Zach Eflin.
With the game on the verge of being put out of reach by a powerful Oviedo (Fla.) team, asking a sophomore to stop the bleeding was daunting. Asking a sophomore who had only recently been called up to varsity and who had quit the team a few months earlier was downright crazy. But with future MLB draft pick A.J. Cole on the hill for Oviedo, Goodwin knew he needed more than just strong relief pitching -- he needed a miracle.
He signaled for Eflin to warm up.
"I was a little nervous in the bullpen," Eflin recalls. "I mean, knowing A.J. Cole would be a high draft pick, I'm looking at going up against a full-grown man."
Thing is, Eflin had done plenty of growing up himself -- mostly against his own will. That’s why he looked unfazed on the mound that night, retiring nine of the 10 batters he faced to open the door for his team’s triumphant comeback win. It also explains why two years later, the right-handed pitcher is the No. 14 senior prospect in the ESPN 100 and a likely early-round pick in the June MLB draft.
It was the type of growing up that no kid should be forced to endure. But the resilient Eflin has managed to turn the burden into a blessing.
Like most baseball players, Eflin's love for the sport stemmed from a game of catch with his dad. But the pastime that evolved into his passion was as much an opportunity for bonding as it was a distraction.
"My mother was an alcoholic, so my dad thought baseball was a good way to do some father-son bonding and give me a break from that environment," Eflin says.
Some days it worked. When he had a little league game, Eflin could take refuge on the field, forgetting about his problems at home. But on other days, when he came home to see his mom passed out on the floor, Eflin was reminded of his nightmarish circumstances.
"As a kid, it put me in a bad mood to see her like that," says Eflin, who currently has little contact with his mother. "My dad was working two jobs to support us. But when he was gone, it was just me and my two sisters living off each other. I would look forward to baseball so much because it was the only thing that got my mind off it all."
At home, Eflin learned what he never wanted to be. On the baseball field, he began to positively channel his anger and discovered what he could be instead.
"On the positive side, it helped push him to want to go to the next level," says his father, Larry. "It taught him that when you work hard for something, make it mean something so you don't sit back and let it go to waste. That's why his original goal going into high school was to be good enough to go to any school of any size on a baseball scholarship."
In his coach’s eyes, it didn't take long for Eflin to reach that level of talent. After sizing him up as an eighth- and ninth-grader, Goodwin knew he had a star on his hands. A star batter, that is.
"We actually thought he was going to be a hitter," says Goodwin, who also coached Eflin on the FTB Mizuno travel squad. "He had soft hands in the field and while he had a good arm and could throw a ton of strikes, he would short-arm his throws a little bit. So the impression was he was going to swing the stick for us.
“But then he hit this growth spurt and started improving his velocity and mechanics as a pitcher. He made some strides where his pitching surpassed his hitting."
Eflin's evolution, however, came to screeching halt in the fall of his sophomore year, when he suddenly got fed up. Fed up with the conditioning and seemingly endless training. Baseball was his safe place, where he could escape the pain at home. But with fall workouts taking place four days a week and little actual baseball in between, Eflin began to resent the sport he loved.
"It was like two months of hell and I didn't want to be out there," Eflin says. "I didn't have a passion, so I left for a week. But then I started to miss the game so much."
When Eflin returned to practice, he immediately focused on regaining the trust of his teammates and coaches, all while taking his passion for training to another level. He embraced the team's weightlifting program, worked on his arm trajectory and subsequently settled into his imposing frame, which now measures 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds.
With Eflin's renewed commitment came a gradual rise in his velocity. As a sophomore, his pitches only peaked in the mid-80s, but he got by thanks to his pinpoint control. After a couple intense offseason workout programs, which included early-morning sessions of long toss and mechanical work, Eflin now has scouts drooling over his 96 mph fastballs and nasty changeups.
"He's made consistent strides throughout his whole career," Goodwin says. "One of the things that separates him from other players is he's still got so much projection. He dominates the strike zone, can put on a show in batting practice and still has so much potential."
His senior campaign only added to this belief, as Eflin went 5-2 with a 0.55 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 38 innings. This all while having 50, sometimes 60, big league scouts evaluating his every throw and movement.
In a few weeks, one major league team will draft Eflin and offer him hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars to pass on his commitment to Central Florida. And though Eflin’s dream has always been to one day reach the majors, he admits that going to UCF is just as enticing.
"Family is the biggest thing," Eflin says. "I can go to UCF for a lot of reasons, like both of my grandparents live within five minutes and it's close to my dad. I've never known what it's like to have a real mother, so I'm a big family man. And I thank God every day for blessing me with these opportunities."
Eflin has plenty of reasons to forget his difficult past, what with his future gleaming so bright. But oftentimes, just as he did on that fateful night two years ago when his number was surprisingly called, Eflin draws back on this pain for perspective. For every strike he throws, he knows life can throw something greater.
"Zach does a great job of winning the next pitch," Goodwin says. "If something bad happens, he could always still go compete, even as a 15-year-old. So when I put him in that game, I knew he could go make it happen.
"Zach knows baseball isn't the hardest thing he'll have to do.”
Brandon Parker covers high school sports for ESPNHS. Follow him on Twitter @brandoncparker or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org