CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Andy MacPhail, the Phillies president, arrived to a news conference last week in the cafeteria at Spectrum Field with a notepad covered with handwritten notes.
His tidbits ranged from how many days the Phillies spent last season in first place to the non-traditional hires they added, such as a team chef, to the struggles Phillies pitchers had last season with lefthanded hitters. Then, from his notepad, MacPhail offered a stat about relief pitcher Hector Neris.
“Hector Neris, God love him,” MacPhail said. “He’s the poster child for giving up 11 home runs in 13 innings and then coming back and striking out over half the batters he faced. So which Hector is showing up this year?”
The Phillies believe they have the deepest bullpen in baseball after investing $66.5 million on relievers over the last two offseasons. But how much better could that bullpen be if the Neris who shows up this year is the same one who returned to Philadelphia last August after six weeks in the minor leagues.
Neris was banished to triple A after posting a 6.90 ERA through the season’s first three months. He began the season as the team’s closer but quickly proved unreliable. Neris returned to the majors in the middle of August, perhaps proving that six weeks away was what he needed.
No major-league reliever had a better strikeout rate in the season’s final two months than Neris, who posted a 2.04 ERA and struck out 50.7 percent of the batters he faced in 20 appearances after returning from the minors.
Neris, for two months, was an elite reliever. But, for three months, he could not be trusted. So who, the Phillies want to know, is the real Hector Neris?
“Sometimes in your career, bad moments need to happen,” Neris said. “When you come back, you tell yourself who you really are. Every time, you come in and you’re doing well, sometimes you forget who you are. You never say life is easy, and baseball is the same thing. What I take from last year’s bad moments is to be positive every single time that I come to the field. Try to do well and prepare my body, work hard, and wait for the good moments. You pass the bad times and the good moments will come.”
Neris credited his resurgence last season to a clear mind he gained from demotion. He also thanked Tommy Hunter -- who was conveniently sitting a few feet away -- for building his confidence as they waited each night in the bullpen.
But the most likely cause for Neris’ dominance was his fastball, which was hammered earlier in the season. Neris threw his fastball on 53 percent of his pitches in August and September, and opponents batted just .147 against it after batting .379 against it before his demotion. The fastball had the same speed, but now Neris had control of it.
Neris had made his career on his splitter, a pitch that carried so much bite that former manager Pete Mackanin once labeled it “invisible.” But that pitch, Neris explained, can be successful only if he has another one to complement it. When he returned from triple A, the fastball was refreshed and the splitter -- the pitch Neris used to rack up his strikeouts -- regained its bite.
“What we saw is a guy who seemed a little bit more confident in his fastball,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “I think we saw a guy who was confident overall. The eye test tells me he used his fastball a little bit more and that he was even more effective with his split.”
It was hard to imagine Neris righting himself when he stood on the mound last June in a blowout after allowing yet another homer, his third of the inning. He averaged a home run per every 6.28 batters in June and ended the month by allowing five in his final four games. The Phillies told Neris after that night that he was headed to triple A.
The Phillies used 22 relievers last season. They could find another Neris. But when his season bottomed out, Neris responded. Now -- after three months of bad moments and two months of dominance -- the Phillies will find out who Neris really is.