Gabe Kapler remembers April 29, 2017, as the night that Cody Bellinger hit the first two home runs of his major-league career, a proud moment for Kapler in his role at the time as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ farm director.
But that game was notable for another reason. Phillies closer Hector Neris allowed three homers in a span of four pitches.
This is relevant now, nearly 13 months later, because Neris is struggling again. Regardless, though, of what you thought about his blown saves Friday night against the New York Mets and last Sunday in Washington, neither meltdown could match the spectacle of that ninth inning at Dodger Stadium.
And although the Phillies’ season unraveled from there — they lost 24 of the next 30 games en route to a 66-96 record — Neris recovered to reel off 23 saves in his next 25 chances, including his final 20 in a row. His ERA in 61 appearances after the Dodgers debacle: 2.61.
“It sounds like there’s some similarities [to this season],” Kapler said Saturday before the Phillies and Mets were rained out. “It’s nice to have that history to lean on.”
Indeed, the root of Neris’ problems last April was familiar. He got away from throwing his signature splitter in favor of his fastball in the outings leading up to the Dodgers game, then threw the splitter only three times to the first three batters in Los Angeles. Once his confidence in his best pitch returned, success followed.
A year later, Neris has gotten away from the splitter again. He threw more fastballs (12) than splitters (seven) when he gave up two runs and didn’t record an out Sunday. On Friday night, after Mets outfielder Michael Conforto hit a long foul ball on a splitter, Neris gave up back-to-back homers to Conforto and Devin Mesoraco on a fastball and a slider.
“My view is that his best weapons are his fastball and his split,” Kapler said. “If he uses those in the right balance in each at-bat, he’s likely to get a lot of outs and get a lot of uncomfortable swings and misses.”
Although Neris has been used in the conventional closer role, Kapler never actually named a closer in spring training. He said he was inclined to allow hitter-specific matchups to dictate his bullpen usage in the late innings of close games. According to Kapler, Neris’ struggles haven’t altered that plan. And if a save situation arose Saturday night and Neris didn’t pitch, Kapler said it would be because he appeared in three of the past four games, not because of his recent struggles.
If anything, Neris’ turnaround after the events of April 29, 2017, give Kapler reason to believe in him now.
“That confidence never wavers, in part because we’ve seen him do it before,” Kapler said. “It’s different than somebody you haven’t seen go through struggles, come back and be really good. He’s actually done it, so that gives us a high degree of confidence.”
Saturday night’s game will be made up Thursday, Aug. 16, as part of a single-admission doubleheader beginning at 4:05 p.m.
The Phillies were still deciding on a starting pitcher for Sunday. Zach Eflin was scheduled to pitch Saturday night, but sticking with him would push ace Aaron Nola to Tuesday night in Baltimore. The Mets opted to go with righthander Jacob deGrom on Sunday, as scheduled, and move Saturday night’s starter Noah Syndergaard to Tuesday.
Lefty reliever Adam Morgan (back) is scheduled to throw a bullpen session Sunday. Morgan is eligible to be reinstated from the disabled list Thursday, and Kapler expects he will be ready to return on or around that date. … Reliever Victor Arano (shoulder) is slated to begin a minor-league rehab assignment with a 20-pitch outing Monday for double-A Reading.