April 29 was not a fun night to be a Phillies fan. It was a worse night to be Hector Neris. The Phillies led the Dodgers 5-2 going into the bottom half of the 9th inning with Neris on the mound, trying to close things out and get the Phillies to a respectable 12-10 record.
You might know what happened next. Yasiel Puig. Gone. Cody Bellinger. Goodbye. Justin Turner. Tie game. Back-to-back-to-back homers. The Phillies went on to lose that game, and it was maybe the first concrete evidence that the 2017 season wasn’t going to be sunshine and rainbows.
For Neris, it was a bit of a reality check. He had pretty much soared through April, though he wasn’t completely comfortable with his splitter, which was his best pitch in 2016. Jeanmar Gomez, named the closer in spring training, had lost the role to Neris, who seemed to be settling in just fine. But he lost himself for a bit and relied too much on his fastball to try and get guys out. The Dodger game was Neris’ low point in 2017.
Pitching coach Bob McClure talked after that game about Neris, his approach and pitching in general to Todd Zolecki of MLB.com:
"You just think you're bulletproof," Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure said Sunday morning about Neris' sudden infatuation with the four-seamer. "Being a pitcher and going through it myself, sometimes you just feel like [forget you], hit this [pitch]. Until that happens. And then you go, 'Hey, let's get back to thinking here.' You've just got be smart, man."
Neris was pretty smart from there. He continued to work on the splitter, and batters hit just .178 off the pitch for the season. If you’re still into that whole “save” thing, the 28-year-old right-hander ended up with 26 of them for the Phillies, going 4-5 on the year with a 3.01 ERA. He struck out 86 and walked 26 in his 74 2⁄3 innings pitched.
And while part of the problem early in the year was an over-reliance on the fastball, another part of the problem was leaving the splitter up in the zone and losing command of the pitch. He did seem to regain that as the year went along, and by the end of the season, it looked like the pitch Phillies fans had come to know and love in 2016.
Neris is just the guy the Phillies want in the bullpen now and in the future. He won’t be a free agent until after the 2021 season, and at worst he looks like a premium set-up man. But he’ll probably be the closer when 2018 rolls around, barring major changes to the roster. We’ll just have to wait and see if Gabe Kapler is as eager to name Neris his closer as Pete Mackanin was naming Gomez last spring. If he is, it would at least be a little bit more merited this time around.