Forget, for a moment, the inning in which embattled closer Hector Neris appeared for the Phillies in his last two outings. (It was the ninth.) Focus instead on the type of pitches that he threw.
Of the eight pitches that Neris needed to retire three Atlanta Braves hitters Monday night, six were four-seam fastballs and two were splitters. At no point did he attempt to throw his slider, by far his third-best pitch. And although he allowed a leadoff hit and a two-out walk in a scoreless inning Wednesday night, he threw only one slider in 18 pitches.
Neris' road back to owning the ninth inning for the Phillies — if such a road exists in Gabe Kapler's manage-by-the-matchups bullpen — is paved with four-seamers and splitters. Pitching coach Rick Kranitz understands Neris' throwing his slider on occasion, but truth be told, he wouldn't mind if the hard-throwing righthander shelved it completely.
"He's perfectly capable of [throwing] just those two pitches and being a quality, quality closer," Kranitz said, referring to the four-seamer and the split. "He's thrown his slider a little bit more this year than he has in the past, and he got hurt with it the other day."
Indeed, Neris gave up a go-ahead homer to the New York Mets' Michael Conforto on a slider in a blown save May 11. A few days later, Kapler removed Neris as the full-time closer and has used a combination of Neris, Edubray Ramos, and rookie sensation Seranthony Dominguez in save situations.
Kapler was aiming to rebuild Neris' confidence by using him with a three-run lead in the ninth inning Monday night after Dominguez faced the dangerous top of the Braves order — Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna Jr., and Freddie Freeman — in the eighth.
But the Phillies will know Neris has his mojo again when he gets back to riding the splitter again. When he gave up one run during a 12-outing stretch from March 30 to May 5, Neris threw his splitter 102 times out of 207 total pitches.
"I think sometimes he does lose confidence [in the splitter]," Kranitz said. "He believes in his other pitches, but his split is so unique in the game. Guys see it and they have a hard time hitting it. All he has to do is keep it down, and he has the hand speed with it when the ball comes out. It's just a different pitch. I don't know if anybody really throws it like that."
Kapler disputed the suggestion that the Phillies are a poor defensive team — "I don't think that's an accurate statement," he said — but the numbers paint an ugly portrait.
Entering Wednesday night, the Phillies ranked last in the National League and second-to-last overall in defensive runs saved (minus-30), according to Baseball Info Solutions. Only the Baltimore Orioles (minus-40) were worse. It's been a particularly sloppy week for the Phillies, who have committed nine errors in the last six games.
Kapler allowed that the Phillies "are capable of performing more admirably on defense" and said the coaching staff has been reviewing video with players to discuss what they could do differently to avoid certain miscues.