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500 strikeouts later, Héctor Neris remains an integral part of Phillies bullpen


Héctor Neris was the last guy out of the bullpen when he made his Major League debut on Aug. 5, 2014. It was the 15th inning of a 1-1 game. He struck out the first batter Jake Marisnick on three pitches and earned the victory as Ryan Howard plated Grady Sizemore on a shift-beating single to win the game. Neris was optioned to Lehigh Valley after the game.

A little more than seven years and a month later, Neris earned his 500th career strikeout against Jackie Bradley Jr. in the bottom of the seventh in Monday’s game against Milwaukee. He’s 18 strikeouts away from tying Ron Reed’s record for strikeouts as a Phillies reliever.

Neris earned his first save for the Phillies in 2016. Over the years, Neris has been the go-to option as the last guy out of the ‘pen with mixed results. He ranks eighth on the all-time Phillies saves leaderboard, but he lost the job in three separate seasons.

Just a short time removed from losing the closer’s job to José Alvarado (then Ranger Suárez), Neris took the mound against the Padres in the ninth inning in a non-save situation on the Fourth of July. He was a pitch away from an immaculate inning. The home plate umpire missed a called strike three on Jake Cronenworth and the rest of the inning went like this: walk, walk, single, double, single and home run. His ERA ballooned to 5.17 after the outing.

“He was close to having a great inning,” Girardi said after the game. “So close. I’m sure he got frustrated because he’s trying to turn his season around.”

The three major summer holidays are usually seen as checkpoints in the 162-game MLB season. From Opening Day to Memorial Day, 20 of Neris’ 24 outings were scoreless. He had a 1.96 ERA and limited hitters to a .606 OPS.

His season got flipped on its head from Memorial Day to Fourth of July. Hitters were getting on base against Neris at a .500 clip. He blew four leads and had a 14.04 ERA in those 10 outings. Opposing hitters had a 1.176 OPS against Neris.

But Neris turned his season around from the Fourth of July to Labor Day. He has a 1.27 ERA in 28 1/3 innings since his disastrous outing against San Diego. Twenty-six of his 28 outings were scoreless and Neris held hitters to a meager .460 OPS. The team is 22-6 in games Neris pitches in relief since July 6.

Héctor Neris struck out his 500th batter on Monday against the Brewers. (Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire)

Girardi alluded to a slight adjustment Neris made with the guidance of pitching coach Caleb Cotham following the Padres game. The two worked on synching up Neris’ delivery and as a result, Neris is better at commanding his fastball. Opponents slugged 1.167 against Neris’ four-seam fastball from June 1 to July 4. That number is down to .152 since July 6.

“Lately, he’s been nasty,” Brad Miller said after Monday’s game. “He’s throwing a ton of heaters with some life, up to 95, 96. He’s throwing the split, he’s mixing in sliders. I feel like every time he’s come out of the ‘pen, he’s gotten it done. I don’t know what the numbers are, but just visually being there, it’s a great feeling with him on the bump for us.”

Instead of closing, Neris is usually called upon to either get the Phillies out of a jam or face the middle of the order late in games. More saves equals more money on the free agent market, but it can be argued that Neris holds the most crucial role in the Phillies bullpen.

Neris, the longest tenured Phillie, is scheduled to become a free agent after the end of this season. Neris and the Phillies avoided arbitration and agreed to a one-year, $5 million deal in December 2020. He’s due for a raise, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the Phillies make a push to retain the right-hander for one or two more years.

For now, the Phillies hope Neris’ unreal hot streak stretches into both the remainder of September and October. It would be fitting to see a player like Neris lead the stretch for the franchise’s first division title in ten years. He debuted in a game that practically nobody was up to watch and spent a majority of his career pitching for a losing team.

“It’s a great moment,” Neris said when asked about possibly pitching in the playoffs. “It’s a great month. It’s special with the history [I have] with Philly. But it’s baseball. Everything can change. Nothing is on the table. You have to fight for that, stay positive and just stay focused on what you want. The team is hungry to make the playoffs.”

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