One pitch leads to three unlikely paths to Phillies' bullpen

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Mark Leiter Jr. was in the middle of a college start, a long way from the major leagues, when he first decided to throw his splitter. Hector Neris fired his first splitter just before the Phillies signed him to a contract he thought he’d never see. Luis Garcia’s career seemed to be on its last legs when he learned last offseason to throw the splitter under the guidance of a friend.

The three pitchers are all expected to play key roles in the Phillies’ bullpen. And each of them used the splitter — a pitch that moves like a fastball before diving at the plate — to travel an unlikely path to the big leagues. Leiter, who turns 27 next week, was a 22nd-round draft pick. Neris, 28, had his first professional contract ripped up. Garcia, 31, worked as a barber and on a moving truck when his first attempt at baseball flamed out.

The Phillies’ bullpen — mostly due to Leiter, Neris, and Garcia — threw more splitters last season than any other relief corps in baseball. The three pitchers reported at spring training with jobs practically sealed. And that would have been hard to imagine had they not discovered that pitch.

“It’s something that definitely helped me get to this point, and for that I’m very thankful,” Leiter said. “But I’m even more thankful for the fact that I can lean on guys like that, who have had a similar journey to me.”

Leiter’s father forged his 11-year major-league career on his reliable sinker, which he paired with a splitter. He urged his son, who was pitching for the New Jersey Institute of Technology, to try a splitter. Just work on it, the father said. Leiter thought he already had enough pitches and didn’t see a need for a splitter. But he finally gave in. Leiter threw the pitch in the sixth inning of a game against Utah Valley, a team that had hammered him in his freshman year. It was the right situation.

“I said, ‘Today’s the day,’” Leiter said. “I fell in love with it, had success with it and it became a pretty big part of who I am as a pitcher. I’m thankful that I listened and was open to it.”

The Phillies drafted Leiter in 2013, gave him a $1,000 bonus, and sent him to the Gulf Coast League. Not many expected Leiter to become anything more than a minor-leaguer. But there also are not many pitchers as confident as Leiter. He fought his way through the minors and reached the majors last April. He proved he belonged.

Leiter relied heavily on the pitch his dad showed him, throwing the splitter for 28 percent of his pitches. Opponents batted just .193 against it and whiffed at 19.25 percent of them, the highest whiff rate for any of his pitches. He was valuable last season as a long reliever and spot starter. Manager Gabe Kapler said Leiter is “the bright spot of spring” and it would not be a surprise to see Leiter and his splitter assume some higher-leverage situations this season.

Garcia seemed to spend more time driving the Northeast Extension during his first few seasons than he spent on the mound. He was optioned between triple-A Lehigh Valley and the majors 23 times. Garcia had resurrected his career four years earlier after returning from a year away from baseball. But now it looked like his time was up.

And then Neris — who threw more splitters last season than any other pitcher in baseball — stepped in. He urged his friend to try his pitch. The two share an agent and work out together in their native Dominican Republic. Neris stopped throwing the pitch after signing with the Phillies but was instructed to try again in 2013 by minor-league pitching coach Dave Lundquist.

Neris signed in 2010 with the Phillies for $17,000. He had signed with Kansas City two years earlier, but the Royals voided his deal because of visa issues. A shot at the pros looked bleak before the Phillies found him. And his shot at the majors was even bleaker before he brought back the splitter. He used the pitch last season to emerge as the closer and threw the pitch for 51 percent of his offerings.

He showed his grip to Garcia last winter during one of their workouts. Garcia tried it, and the pitch felt weird at first. But Garcia knew he needed something else besides a fastball and a slider. He also knew time was running out. It was worth a shot. He threw it for 13 percent of his pitches last season and had the best year of his career. He spent the last five months of the season in the majors. He finally had consistency. And the Phillies’ bullpen had another unlikely splitter.

“It’s been a long way for me. I’ve been here the last couple of years just up and down,” Garcia said. “Last year was the year that I could finally show what I can do. Definitely, that pitch helped me a lot.”

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