Hector Neris looked like a spent prizefighter Sunday, as he sat in the visiting dugout at Miller Park. Dazed and confused, he had just been knocked out by the Milwaukee Brewers in a situation designed to help restore his confidence as one of the Phillies' premier relief pitchers.
With his team up by five runs, Neris surrendered four runs on four hits, including a couple of home runs, in the bottom of the ninth, and was unable to close out a game the Phillies held on to win, 10-9. The Phillies decided Monday that the Neris reclamation project should not continue at the big-league level, optioning the reliever to triple-A Lehigh Valley.
"We would like Hector to clear his head," manager Gabe Kapler said before the Phillies' series opener with the St. Louis Cardinals at Citizens Bank Park. "It feels like the right time for him to work on his command of his split, specifically, and he just, quite frankly, needed a refresher."
There's no denying that the 2018 season has been a monumental struggle for the man who entered it as the Phillies' closer, even though Kapler was reluctant to designate anyone in his bullpen with that title. Neris' problems started on opening day, when he surrendered a three-run, walk-off homer to Atlanta's Nick Markakis.
Neris, who converted 26 of 29 save opportunities a year ago, including his final 20, recovered to allow just one run on eight hits while racking up six saves in seven opportunities over his next 12 appearances.
Since then, his season has been in a downward spiral. It started with a blown save early last month against Washington, during which he did not retire any of the five batters he faced. Six days later against the New York Mets, he gave up back-to-back home runs in another blown save.
His role, at that point, became reduced, and his earned run average in his last 17 games was 9.00. As recently as Saturday in Milwaukee, however, Kapler gave Neris a chance to close the game, and he responded with an eight-pitch save against the Brewers.
His confidence, it seemed, was on the rise. But, 24 hours later, it was shattered again, after he surrendered a couple of ninth-inning home runs. Kapler said he relayed a personal story about his own career to Neris, describing how the Phillies manager was optioned to triple A by the Colorado Rockies in 2003, before finishing the season as a productive member of the playoff-bound Boston Red Sox.
"I shared that story with him mainly because he is an established major-leaguer," Kapler said. "Sometimes that refresher, sometimes that recharge, can change everything and get him right back on track."
If that's true, Neris would not be the first player to be sent to the minors and successfully return. That sort of ploy existed long before baseball's analytics age. The Phillies, of course, rely heavily on analytics to help them make decisions, but Kapler admitted he did not know whether Neris' problems are more about the pitcher's mind or his mechanics.
"You know what, I'm not sure," Kapler said. "I don't have a real clear answer to that question. It's something we continue to dig into. We've tried to find some mechanical flaws. His stuff is there. He's still [throwing] 95 [miles per hour]. You still see flashes of his splitter being brilliant. We don't have to go that far back to see it."
No, you don't. In a game last week against Colorado, "the split was dancing out of the zone," Kapler said. "And then, the next day, the split was moving in the zone and … it wasn't the same split. Obviously we saw [Sunday], and it wasn't the best outing."
What we do not know and cannot know is how much, if at all, Neris' difficult season has had to do with Kapler's desire not to define bullpen roles. All we know is that rookie Seranthony Dominguez is going to be asked to get the biggest outs in close games the Phillies are leading in. After that, it's a mix-and-match world in which every reliever needs to be ready.
"The strongest athletes mentally can handle any situation," Kapler said. "And we voiced the same thing to Hector and all of our relievers: be ready for any situation."
Kapler said Neris assured the manager that he was fine with that philosophy, but there's no way to know for sure whether that was the case. It would be naïve to think that Kapler's bullpen usage did not impact different relievers in different ways. Maybe Neris' confidence was shot the moment he was removed from the closer role.
If so, it does not matter now. It's clear that Kapler has strong convictions about his bullpen philosophy, and they are not changing any time soon.
"So while you [may] say something different to the manager than what you might feel inside, the most important thing is that … you have to be ready for every situation," Kapler said. "Not just Hector, but everybody."