With the go-ahead run on base in the sixth inning Wednesday night, Hector Neris entered the game and struck out two batters on a total of seven pitches. It was as big a moment as there was in the Phillies' had-to-have-it 8-6 victory and a continuation of a remarkable revival for their erstwhile closer.
Care to discuss, Hector?
"No," Neris said as he tidied up his locker.
Maybe some other time?
"No," Neris repeated.
It's nothing personal. It's just Neris' policy since he got recalled by the Phillies two weeks ago.
Neris spent about 45 days, give or take a few, back in triple A this summer after fumbling the ninth-inning role he held for the Phillies for most of last season. He got sent down twice, actually, the second time after allowing three home runs in one inning June 29 at Citizens Bank Park. When he walked off the mound that night, he had a 6.90 ERA.
And now that he's back — in a big way, too, having allowed three hits and one walk and struck out 18 in eight scoreless innings — Neris has decided he will grant interviews only to reporters who went to the minors to check in on him while he was gone. Anyone else gets a polite turndown.
That's Neris' prerogative, of course. And if he felt like a forgotten man this summer and chooses to wear that sentiment as a 6.90 ERA-size chip on his shoulder, well, the Phillies will welcome the additional motivation from a 29-year-old righthander who is emerging as their most important reliever in the final month of the season.
"That's the thing about baseball, man. You go through a lot of mountains and valleys," veteran reliever Tommy Hunter said. "Once you catch your wave, catch your stride going up, you try to run as fast as you can. We're human. We make mistakes and we go through tough times, but the guy that we see right now is the guy that's been here for the last two years, three years, four years, whatever it is."
Neris assembled his resume — a 3.38 ERA, 38 saves, and 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings in 228 appearances since 2014 — by throwing a sinking splitter and a fastball that crackles in the mid-90s. He likes to sprinkle in a slider from time to time, but it's the heater-split combination that makes Neris good.
Theories abound for why Neris wasn't very good for much of the season's first three months. Phillies pitching coach Rick Kranitz suggested Neris was throwing too many sliders when he should have stuck with his one-two punch. In the minors, Neris worked with Lehigh Valley pitching coach Dave Lundquist to speed up his delivery by shortening his leg lift. Kapler points to "more vertical movement" on Neris' splitter now as opposed to earlier in the season.
But the biggest culprit might have been simply Neris' inability to locate his fastball. In May, for instance, opponents teed off on his four-seamer, batting .400 and swinging and missing only once. Since his return from triple A, he's holding opponents to a .154 average and has gotten eight swings and misses with his fastball.
"I think the fastball has more life in the zone," Kapler said. "He's got a ton of confidence. It seems like every time he goes out there, it's like a snowball. He gets even more confidence, and as a result, we get more confidence. And we all feel like he's going to pitch some really important innings for us down the stretch."
In fact, the Phillies are counting on it.
Rookie phenom Seranthony Dominguez, a revelation when he got called up in early May and Kapler's most trusted reliever ever since, has hit the proverbial wall, allowing eight runs and three homers over his last 7 2/3 innings. Ditto for rookie Victor Arano, who has given up runs in three of his last four appearances. Edubray Ramos (2.00 ERA in 42 appearances) is back on the disabled list with a blister on his right index finger.
In many ways, then, it has fallen to Neris to anchor the bullpen once again. Talk about coming full circle.
Kapler, unorthodox in his resistance to designating a closer but rather deploying his best relievers in the biggest moments of a game, admitted he's already looking to increase Neris' role.
"Given how good Hector has been, what I am thinking about a lot more is how can we get Hector back out there in the highest-leverage situation in the game, whether it's the sixth, the seventh, the eighth, or the ninth," Kapler said. "The biggest moment, with the heart of the lineup up, kind of with all the pressure on, I am thinking about how to get him out and into that moment."
On Wednesday night, it was the sixth inning. The Nationals had just tied the game, and Adam Eaton and Trea Turner were due to bat with the go-ahead run on first base. Neris punched out both of them. Just what Kapler ordered.
And if Neris doesn't want to talk about it, his teammates hardly seem to mind.
"Dude's a stud. I mean, he's a closer. It's not a shock," Hunter said. "The guy's got a reputation of being a stud in this league, and he's showing you again why he's a stud."