The Cal League can be a grind for young pitchers with hot summer nights, small ballparks and top-notch prospects in the batter's box making life difficult. Lake Elsinore right-hander Zach Eflin has handled the challenge well, having already made more starts and pitched more innings than he did all of last year at Class A, his first full season in the pros.
"I've definitely matured body-wise a lot from last year," the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Eflin said. "I feel stronger than I did last year. Endurance-wise I feel like I can stay in the game longer. We have our pitch counts and everything, but with that said, I feel good. All the work I've been putting in is paying off."
Eflin, the No. 10 San Diego Padres prospect, is 9-7 with a 3.80 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and 90-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 123 innings (23 starts) for the Storm. Though he's given up a few more runs than he did last year, which is to be expected, Eflin's performance has been remarkably consistent with his 2013 campaign.
"I'm most happy I think about the ground balls I've been getting," said Eflin, who finished 7-6 with a 2.73 ERA in 22 starts last season. "I knew coming into this league that I'd have to perfect my two-seamer to get a lot of ground outs. If you leave the ball up, they'll hit it in the air and it'll get out of there."
Eflin started the season in a talented Lake Elsinore rotation that also featured good friend Joe Ross, who has since been promoted to Double-A San Antonio. The two still talk regularly, but Eflin said he realizes there's some work to be done before he joins Ross in the Texas League.
As the Cal League enters its final month, Eflin said he's focused on improving his secondary pitches.
"I've been trying to develop my slider more," Eflin said. "It's kind of been rocky lately. I just need to get more of a feel for it -- the speed on it is fine. My changeup has always been there, but I just need to work on hitting the strike zone more consistently. I've been working on my slider, but I need to perfect it. I understand that's why I'm in A-ball."
Eflin's most recent start Monday night vs. Inland Empire was an interesting one. After giving up a homer to begin the game, the 20-year-old settled down and dominated for a few frames. Then the fifth inning came, and he walked in a run before getting two strikeouts to end his night.
Since being drafted 33rd overall in 2012, Eflin has been praised for his work ethic and mental toughness. Looking back, the young pitcher said it's something he picked up from his father, Larry, and his high school coach, Jered Goodwin.
In fact, Goodwin is expected to be in attendance Friday night when Eflin's Storm hosts High Desert and catcher Tyler Marlette, another one of Goodwin's former players.
"Our coach did a great job of preaching that to us -- mental toughness. And I think I've carried that over," Eflin said. "I would say that's a strong point of my game, because I don't get a lot of strikeouts. I think the mental toughness comes into perfecting pitches, to challenging a hitter to get him out, limiting the walks and how you compose yourself on the mound. I think I'm doing a good job of that."
Cashner cameo: San Diego Padres righty Andrew Cashner is scheduled to make a rehab start for Lake Elsinore on Friday when the Storm hosts High Desert. Cashner (2-6, 2.36 ERA) has been on the 15-day disabled list since June 19 with right shoulder inflammation and is expected to rejoin his San Diego teammates later this month.
Ports power: Stockton first baseman Matt Olson continues to show impressive power with a league-best 33 homers in 112 games played, but teammate Renato Nunez isn't far behind with 28 of his own. Olson homered in three consecutive games from Saturday to Monday while Nunez belted a grand slam in Saturday's 13-7 win over San Jose.
So long, Lancaster: The Houston Astros have promoted right-hander Josh Hader (9-2, 2.70 ERA) and outfielder Teoscar Hernandez (.294/.376/.550, 17 homers, 75 RBIs) to Double-A Corpus Christi. Hader, 20, is ranked as the organization's No. 10 prospect, while Hernandez, 21, is ranked No. 11.
Alex Espinoza is a contributor to MiLB.com.