The laser lights were already set up inside the Phillies’ clubhouse in preparation for another postgame victory party.
If only Hector Neris had turned out the lights on the New York Mets.
But Neris hasn’t pitched many clean ninth innings lately. As closers go, he’s hardly been a sure thing. And sure enough, he gave up back-to-back home runs to Michael Conforto and Devin Mesoraco to turn a one-run Phillies lead into a 3-1 loss Friday night before an announced crowd of 29,247 at Citizens Bank Park.
It marked Neris’ second blown save in six days, his third in 11 opportunities overall this season. He seems to have lost some confidence in his signature splitter, opting instead for his fastball and slider on the Conforto and Mesoraco homers, respectively.
And now it’s worth wondering whether Neris is still the best option to safeguard slim ninth-inning leads.
“This is difficult for him,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “It’s a mental grind, and this is something that Hector will overcome. And once he gets through it, he’s going to soar.”
Neris’ state of mind isn’t exactly clear. He didn’t make himself available to reporters before departing the ballpark, leaving catcher Jorge Alfaro, starter Jake Arrieta and others to answer questions that might have otherwise been directed to him.
When Neris blew a 4-3 lead in the ninth inning of a 5-4 loss last Sunday in Washington, he seemed to get away from his splitter. And after Conforto launched a splitter for a long foul ball down the right-field line with the tying run on first base Friday night, Neris threw back-to-back fastballs, the second of which was hit for the go-ahead homer.
Alfaro staunchly defended Neris. He said he called for the fastball and that Neris agreed it was the right pitch.
“I just think that pitching in the big leagues is not as easy as everybody thinks,” Alfaro said. “They have really good hitters, too, and they make adjustments. I have all my trust in his stuff. He’s a really good pitcher.”
But Neris has allowed at least one baserunner in 13 of his 17 appearances this season. And he got in trouble quickly against the Mets, allowing a one-out single to Wilmer Flores.
Neris spoiled a stellar outing for Arrieta, who shut out the Mets for 7 1/3 innings and had a lead courtesy of a first-inning solo homer by Odubel Herrera that stretched his on-base streak to 40 games. Arrieta has allowed one run in 13 1/3 innings over his last two starts, but the Phillies didn’t win either game because Neris gave up leads in the ninth.
“It’s tough for me because it’s tough for Hector,” Arrieta said. “I walked over to him when he came in and I just told him to keep his head up. He’s a guy we’re going to rely on a lot throughout the season.”
Clearly, though, Kapler’s commitment to Neris is being tested.
Earlier in the week, after the Phillies called up hard-throwing righthander Seranthony Dominguez, Kapler indicated he might be inclined to match up relievers against certain hitters in the ninth inning rather than employing a closer in the conventional way. On Tuesday night, for instance, veteran righthander Tommy Hunter recorded the first out of the ninth inning before Neris got the final two outs.
“I evaluate it as a very good baseball player going through a tough time,” Kapler said of Neris’ struggles. “His track record suggests he will perform, I believe he will perform.”
And if the Phillies have a lead in the ninth inning Saturday night, will Kapler hesitate to use Neris?
“If he’s the best option to get the hitters out that are coming up,” Kapler said, “we will go to him.”
At this point, it’s not clear that Neris is.