When Hector Neris got sent down to triple-A for the first time this season, way back on June 18, the erstwhile Phillies closer was disappointed. But he also took seriously the need to put in the work required to get both his splitter and his mindset back to their peak levels.
So, how did Neris handle being demoted again Saturday, five days after being called back up and one day after giving up three home runs in the ninth inning against the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park?
"Not 100 percent sure what his frame of mind is this time around," manager Gabe Kapler said.
That was the risk the Phillies took when they chose Neris over other triple-A options to replace reliever Edubray Ramos, who went on the disabled list Monday with a right shoulder injury. And in his first two appearances, both relatively low-leverage situations against the Yankees, Neris looked like his old self, confidently throwing his nasty splitter and striking out four batters in two clean innings.
But Neris gave up five runs in the ninth inning of Friday night's 17-7 loss to the Nationals. Brian Goodwin belted a leadoff homer, which was followed by Juan Soto's three-run shot and Mark Reynolds' solo number. Neris' fastball looked "flatter," Kapler said, and his splitter lacked its signature downward movement — signs that his two-appearance stint in triple-A wasn't enough to solve his problems.
"I think last night was a little bit of a shell-shock," Kapler said. "Obviously, we saw some signs of this guy coming back and being special and unique again, but we really want him to feel dependable. It's hard to imagine that, right now, when he goes out on the mound, that he feels dependable."
Neris packed a 6.90 ERA in 33 appearances for his return trip to triple-A, and it's unlikely he will be back so soon this time. The Phillies recalled righthander Mark Leiter Jr. from triple-A Lehigh Valley, and it's possible that veteran reliever Pat Neshek (forearm) could be reinstated from the disabled list as early as Sunday. Likewise, neither Ramos nor righthander Luis Garcia (wrist) is expected to be sidelined much longer.
As for Neris, Kapler reiterated that the reliever can benefit from time away from the spotlight of the majors to rebuild his confidence.
"For this team to be as successful as it can be, we need a healthy — and when I say 'healthy,' I don't mean physically healthy — Hector Neris down the stretch and to help us get into the playoffs," Kapler said. "We just felt like the best way to do that is to let him work in a really pressure-free environment. There's a lot of attention right now every time Hector goes out there and performs. In Lehigh Valley, you know there's not as many people watching. You can practice things that you wouldn't otherwise."
Although Neshek said he feels ready to join the Phillies' bullpen on Sunday, he added that he wouldn't mind one more tune-up in the minors. He planned to discuss his status with Kapler, pitching coach Rick Kranitz, and head athletic trainer Scott Sheridan before the team reached a decision.
Neshek, who signed a two-year, $16.25 million contract in the offseason, hasn't thrown a pitch in the majors this season, because of shoulder and forearm issues. On Friday night, he gave up one run on two hits but struck out three batters in one inning at double-A Reading, the third appearance of his minor-league rehab assignment.