Being the closer is different. Being the guy asked to get the last three outs of a game increases the degree of difficulty, frays the nerves and makes the heart beat faster.
Sure, you can debate the significance of the closer role as many have in recent years. Doesn’t the guy who faces the heart of an opposition’s batting order in the eighth inning deserve more credit than the guy who faces the bottom of the order in the ninth? Shouldn’t you use your best reliever against the opposition’s best hitters? How good does a closer have to be to record a save with a three-run lead?
It is all worthy of discussion and Phillies manager Gabe Kapler enjoys the conversation even if he’s not thrilled by the conundrum created by Hector Neris’ two recently blown saves.
“I don’t know that I’d compare it to any other part of the game,” Kapler said when asked how difficult it is to manage the back end of a bullpen. “It’s something that interests me and it’s a challenge. We can’t lose sight of the fact that we’re dealing with human beings with all of their individual routines and needs. We need to balance supporting confident, happy players with putting the Phillies in the best position to win baseball games. Doing those things simultaneously is indeed an awesome challenge.”
Kapler’s great challenge during the Phillies’ 4-2 win over the New York Mets on Sunday at Citizens Bank Park arose in the top of the seventh inning. The Phillies had taken a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the sixth on a three-run, pinch-hit home run by Nick Williams, but now Kapler needed to navigate the bullpen through the final three innings. All eyes were on Neris.
Tommy Hunter and Luis Garcia teamed up to get the Phillies through the seventh, although Hunter surrendered an RBI double to Asdubral Cabrera that nearly cleared the right-field wall. Recently promoted rookie Seranthony Dominguez got the Phillies through the eighth, but there was no sign of Neris warming in the pen.
The ninth inning in this game belonged to Edubray Ramos, and Kapler’s explanation as to why was fine.
“We liked [Ramos’] fastball-slider combination against who they had coming up,” Kapler said.
It worked, but there had to be some angst because you never know how a pitcher is going to handle the ninth inning with a lead until he has done it. Ramos, with the help of the team’s interpreter, did a great job of explaining why the ninth inning is so different for a pitcher.
“The game is on the line,” he said. “There’s no room to mess up. You don’t want to let anyone on base. You just want to get everyone out as quickly as possible. You know you need to execute your pitches. Personally, I take every inning that way. But the ninth inning is just that extra pressure because the game is on the line.”
Ramos got the job done Sunday by retiring three of the four batters he faced, including Cabrera for the final out. Those two had a little history. Cabrera flipped his bat after hitting a walk-off home run against Ramos near the end of the 2016 season and Ramos responded early in 2017 by throwing a pitch behind and over the infielder’s head.
This time, after issuing a four-pitch walk to Brandon Nimmo, Ramos retired Cabrera on a liner to left field for the game’s final out. That certainly does not make Ramos the Phillies’ closer, which is a word Kapler has chosen to avoid anyway.
It will be interesting to see if and when Neris returns to the role of finishing baseball games for the Phillies. He did warm up in the ninth Sunday, but his only contribution to the victory came as an adviser to Ramos.
“I’ve had conversations with Hector in the past,” Ramos said. “Last year when I was struggling he gave me advice. But for today he told me whatever the situation was that I should take a deep breath and throw strikes and make sure you calm down on the mound because it’s the ninth inning and the game is on the line.”
That’s good advice from a guy who has been a pretty good closer. Yes, Neris blew two saves recently and they resulted in painful losses for the Phillies. But he also converted 26 of 29 opportunities a year ago, an 89.7 percent save rate that was tied with Boston’s Craig Kimbrel for eighth best among relievers with at least 20 saves.
Neris displayed class after watching Ramos record the final three outs against the Mets.
“I’m so happy for Ramos because he’s great and he can help the team in every inning, no matter if it’s the ninth, seventh, sixth,” Neris said. “He’s ready whenever.”
Kapler told Neris that he, too, should be ready to pitch in a variety of innings going forward.
“Before today, he told me, ‘You know the plan we had earlier in the year in spring training,’ ” Neris said. “He thinks I’ll be good for pitching the ninth, seventh, sixth. Everyone here he thinks can pitch in the ninth or the sixth. I believe it, too, because my teammates are ready.”
That sounds nice, but the ninth inning is different. History has proved that not everyone is capable of getting the final three outs. Hector Neris has proved that he can, and at some point he deserves the chance to prove it again.