Gabe Kapler pulled Hector Neris aside a day before the bullpen door opened on Sunday and a reliever other than Neris emerged to secure the final three outs of the Phillies’ 4-2 win over the Mets.
The Phillies, Kapler told Neris, would be changing course. Neris was their exclusive closer for the season’s first six weeks, but he blew a pair of saves in the span of six days last week. Kapler reminded the righthander before Saturday’s rainout of the conversation they had at spring training about the manager’s vision of a bullpen without roles.
No designated closer. No designated set-up man. Just relievers used in optimal situations based on matchups.
Sunday — with Neris watching from the bullpen as Edubray Ramos earned his first save — would be the first step in the manager’s vision becoming reality. The Phillies no longer have a defined closer. Ramos will not handle every ninth inning and Neris has not seen his last save opportunity. He even warmed up as Ramos pitched, and there was a scenario in which he would have been used.
Seranthony Dominguez, promoted from triple A just a week ago, will be in the mix. Tommy Hunter and Luis Garcia are in the conversation. The ninth inning will be Kapler’s experiment.
“We’re going to be creative,” Kapler said. “And we’re going to match up effectively. We owe that to the Philadelphia Phillies, to protect our team with the best possible matchups.”
Neris, dating back to last season, recorded 28 of his last 30 save chances before blowing Friday night’s game by allowing two Mets homers in the ninth inning. His tough week was almost needed if Kapler was ever going to put into motion the plan he first discussed in December. Kapler was no longer tied to Neris as his only ninth-inning option. A closer carousel — one based on nightly match-ups — could begin. And that’s what he told Neris on Saturday.
“Everyone here, he thinks, can pitch in the ninth or the sixth,” Neris said. “I believe it too because my teammates are ready. Everyone is a reliever and everyone is ready to pitch no matter what the situation. I’m so happy for Ramos because he’s great and he can help the team in every inning.”
Kapler called on his bullpen after Aaron Nola held the Mets to one run in six innings, then gave way to pinch-hitter Nick Williams, who hit a three-run homer. The righthander lowered his season ERA to 1.99 through nine starts as he struck out four and scattered nine hits and two walks. Hunter recorded the first two outs of the seventh before allowing a single and RBI double. Garcia finished the inning and Dominguez hammered down the eighth, which started with the cleanup spot of the lineup and was perhaps a tougher task than the ninth. Sunday’s “closer” might have actually been the pitcher who handled the eighth inning.
“We’re going to read and react to the environment,” Kapler said. “We said from spring training and the beginning of the season that we would use the most appropriate reliever in a situation. Sometimes, that’s going to be Hector. Sometimes, that’s going to be others late in the game.”
And then entered Ramos. The righthander’s fastball-slider combination, Kapler said, presented a favorable matchup against the righthanders at the bottom of the Mets’ lineup. Ramos retired three of four batters to pick up the save. With two outs and a runner on first, he had a full count on Asdrubal Cabrera after jumping ahead 0-2.
It seemed almost fitting that Cabrera stood in his way. In September 2016, Cabrera celebrated a homer off Ramos so exuberantly that it angered Ramos enough to throw a fastball over his head when they met six months later, at the start of the next season. That incident was not on his mind, Ramos said. This was just a ninth-inning battle. Ramos finally retired his old foe on a line out to left field. He mildly pumped a fist. Neris celebrated 425 feet away with the other pitchers in the bullpen. For the Phillies’ relievers, it was the first day of the rest of the season.
“I truly believe we have a really good bullpen,” Ramos said. “We’re all ready for any situation in any inning. I trust the guys and we all have really good trust in one another and I feel the manager is the same way.”