After appearing out of the bullpen in four of five games last week, Hector Neris proved only one thing to the Phillies.
He can't be trusted.
Neris alternated two dominant outings with two rough ones. And after watching their erstwhile closer give up four runs and record only two outs in the ninth inning Sunday in Milwaukee, the Phillies decided to option Neris to triple-A Lehigh Valley "to clear his head," in the words of manager Gabe Kapler.
"It feels like the right time for him to work on his command of his split, specifically," Kapler said Monday. "And he just, quite frankly, needed a refresher."
Neris, 26-for-29 in save situations last season, was removed from the closer role last month after blowing two saves in a six-day span. He had been used in mostly low-leverage situations in Kapler's closerless bullpen. Even his 10-pitch strikeout of the side last Wednesday night against the Colorado Rockies came with the Phillies trailing by six runs.
Since then, though, Kapler had been trying to ease Neris back into bigger spots. He entered with the Phillies leading by four runs last Thursday against the Rockies and allowed a home run to the first batter he faced, then closed out Saturday's 4-1 victory in Milwaukee with an eight-pitch save.
But his implosion Sunday — from the leadoff homer by Jesus Aguilar to Jonathan Villar's single, Hernan Perez's double and a three-run homer by Eric Thames — left the Phillies fortunate to hold on for a 10-9 victory and guessing about what to expect from Neris from outing to outing.
"This is a really tough thing for Hector to deal with, but I'm very confident this is what's best for him long-term," Kapler said. "I'm very confident this will give him an opportunity to be right back here with his teammates."
Neris has a 6.00 ERA in 30 appearances. The root of his problem is inconsistent command of his splitter, his best pitch. Last Wednesday night, he got four swings and misses with his splitter. A day later, he left a splitter over the middle of the plate and Colorado's Ryan McMahon smashed a home run.
"His ability to throw that pitch where he wants to throw it in the zone and then to move it out of the zone is what makes Hector Neris special and a guy that's been an effective reliever now for a couple years," Kapler said. "Without that, the command of that pitch, I think it's very hard for him to be as successful as he wants himself to be and as successful as we think he can be."
The Phillies called up lefthander Austin Davis to take Neris' spot. Davis, 25, has a 2.43 ERA in 22 triple-A appearances. He has reverse splits this season, faring better against righthanded hitters (.180 average, .492 OPS against him) than lefties (.222, .693).
"He's had control of three pitches," Kapler said. "Dependable strike thrower, so far."
Count one of Kapler's sons among those who think the Phillies need to acquire another reliever before the July 31 trade deadline. The manager doesn't seem to share that opinion, even as the rival Washington Nationals traded three minor leaguers to acquire Kansas City Royals closer Kelvin Herrera.
"My son and I were texting back and forth — my son is now a huge Phillies fan — and he said, 'What do you think will happen at the deadline? Like, do you think we're going to go get a reliever?'" Kapler said. "I said, 'Our bullpen is probably pretty good.'"
Kapler noted that veteran sidearmer Pat Neshek (strained right forearm) is slated to throw another session of live batting practice Wednesday and could progress to a minor-league rehab assignment by the end of the week. Fellow righthander Luis Garcia (strained right wrist) likely will be ready to return from the disabled list once he's eligible next week.
"We've got a good bullpen," Kapler said. "I'm very confident in our bullpen, in the pieces that are in there tonight, and I'm very confident in the pieces we have when everybody is healthy and fresh."