After a mild slump, the Philadelphia Phillies fireballing setup man is once again mowing down opposition hitters.
While the Phillies were bolting out to an amazingly hot start over the first month of the 2016 season, one of the key factors was the shutdown performance of their bullpen.
Jeanmar Gomez emerged as the surprising closer within the first couple of weeks, and was locking down games with a series of quiet, steady, reliable performances.
Setting games up for Gomez was fireballing right-hander Hector Neris, who over his first nine appearances went unscored upon. In that season start, Neris allowed just four hits over his first 10.1 innings pitched with a 17/3 K:BB ratio.
Signed back in 2010 as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic, the now 27-year old Neris made his big league debut in August of 2014, and finally joined the Phillies bullpen for good last July.
That bullpen performance at the start of this season was, along with a series of solid starting pitching outings, the primary reason that the Phillies woke up on May 19th with a 24-17 record, just a half-game out of the NL East lead.
However, neither the team nor their setup man would continue those performances. While the Phillies began collapsing under the weight of a non-existent offensive attack, the pressure on the pitchers (and perhaps some overuse) wore down the arms, including Neris.
The Brewers’ Alex Presley lined a two-run, pinch-hit homer off Neris on April 24th, eliminating any illusions of perfection. They were the first runs scored against him all season.
A week later, Neris was credited with his first Save of the season in a 2-1 win over the Cleveland Indians. However, it wasn’t a clean performance, as the lone Tribe run came via a Carlos Santana one-out home run in the 9th inning off Neris.
Five days after that, Giancarlo Stanton broke a 4-4 tie with a two-run blast off Neris in the bottom of the 8th, giving the Marlins a 6-4 victory in Miami.
Following that series of longballs, Neris settled down and took a scoreless streak of nine games out to the end of May.
But on the month’s final day the Washington Nationals beat him up, scoring three times on three walks and two hits in the top of the 8th, when Neris had retired two of the first three batters.
That disheartening loss at Citizens Bank Park was the club’s fourth in a row, something they hadn’t experienced since the season’s first week, in what would become a seven-game losing skid that dropped them below the .500 mark. The team has yet to fully recover.
When June began, things only got worse. Neris allowed runs in three of his first seven appearances of the month, and went through a streak of seven straight outings in which he allowed at least one hit.
Neris was clearly not the same dominating, shutdown setup man who had stormed out of the gates in April. He was also leading Major League Baseball in innings pitched, leading many to speculate that he was indeed being overexposed.
In recent weeks, the Phillies have begun to turn their season back around. The club has now won nine of 12 to pull within seven games of that .500 mark. A suddenly explosive offense has been the catalyst this time.
But their setup man has also begun to get his own game back together. Over his last nine appearances since June 17th, Neris has yielded just one earned run and seven hits over 9.2 innings with an 11/1 K:BB ratio.
It hasn’t been perfect. After striking out two of the first three batters swinging, Neris blew a one-run lead in Arizona last week when he uncorked a wild pitch to put a runner in scoring position. That runner came home on a weak single to tie the game.
But aside from that slight bump, the setup man again looks confident out on the mound. He continues to lead baseball with 44 innings pitched, and his overall numbers are once again looking strong.
Neris has allowed just 31 hits over those innings with a 53/16 K:BB ratio. His ERA and WHIP marks of 2.66 and 1.068 are solid, and he owns a staff-high 157 ERA+ mark.
The devastating out pitch in Neris’ arsenal is a split-fingered fastball that manager Pete Mackanin has described as “invisible”, and which veteran catcher Carlos Ruiz described for CSN Philly’s Jim Salisbury in this manner:
“It’s a little bit like a knuckleball,” Ruiz said. “Sometimes it goes straight down. Sometimes it runs and fades (away from a lefty hitter). As a catcher, you have to be ready for the movement. He can throw it any time in any count. The hitter can think about it, but he still has no chance because of the movement. Plus, he has to worry about a 94-mph fastball. That’s why it’s tough facing this guy. He’s got real good stuff and he’s throwing everything with confidence.”
There has been speculation as we begin to move through July that Gomez could become a trade chip as the MLB non-waiver deadline approaches at month’s end. In that scenario, Neris could move into that closer role. He certainly has the stuff for the job.
However, it is also possible that Neris himself could be dealt to a contending team in need of quality bullpen help. He is just entering the prime of his career, is not arbitration eligible until after the 2018 season, and cannot become a free agent for another five years.
Whether as a contributing member of the bullpen, even as its future closer, or as a trade piece, Neris has certainly become a valuable performer for the rebuilding Fightin’ Phils.