Update: Several hours after this post went up, Hector Neris allowed four runs in the ninth inning of a game the Phillies led by five.
Gabe Kapler's call Saturday to Hector Neris in the ninth inning of a 4-1 game in Milwaukee was a big surprise — and as with his decision to pinch-hit for a cruising Zach Eflin in the top of the sixth, he evaded criticism only because the moves worked.
We'd gotten used to seeing Neris only in games that had already been decided. Prior to Saturday, here were his last six outings:
• 8th inning, Phillies up by 5
• 8th inning, Phillies down by 6
• 7th inning, Phillies down by 10
• 8th inning, Phillies down by 4
• 7th inning, Phillies down by 3
• 8th inning, Phillies up by 4
When Seranthony Dominguez entered in the eighth inning after Tommy Hunter and Edubray Ramos, it looked like the Phillies were again set to use Dominguez for a six-out save. But he threw 17 pitches and put two men on base in the eighth, so there was some stress. You can't use a guy for two innings every time.
Here's how rare it would have been for Dominguez to pick up another two-out save there: If he had, he'd have become only the third pitcher in the last eight seasons to record three two-inning saves in a year (2018 Josh Hader, 2017 Raisel Iglesias).
But back to Neris. This was good timing for Kapler to give him a jolt of confidence. It was a three-run lead so technically a save situation, but Neris had breathing room. It was against the middle of the Brewers' order: Lorenzo Cain, Travis Shaw, Ryan Braun.
In eight pitches, Neris finished the job. It was one of the most efficient outings of his career.
"We've eased (Neris) back into the fire," Kapler told reporters after the game. "[We pitched him] in low-leverage situations quite a bit and really paid very close attention to how his stuff was moving. And we've seen a couple of games that have been good. One that was lights-out and that kinda looked like we could throw him back into [a high-leverage] situation."
Neris is one of those players Phillies fans just seem to have little patience for, probably because he's been around here during some lean years and they've seen him blow leads. The full scope of Neris is worth remembering, though. Neris is 36 for 42 in save opportunities the last two seasons, a success rate of 86 percent. Not the best, but far from the worst.
Since 2016, he has a 3.08 ERA with 11.0 strikeouts per nine innings. Of his 182 appearances over that span, 75 percent have been scoreless. (Numbers prior to Sunday.)
He's done the job in the past and hasn't simply forgotten how to get outs in the major leagues. Most relievers endure rough periods, and the Phillies are still hoping to be able to use Neris in big spots moving forward.
With how good Ramos and Dominguez have been, the Phillies' bullpen could turn into the strength they thought it would be if Neris and Tommy Hunter can turn their seasons around and Pat Neshek can make it back from season-long arm problems.
"The guy that Hector has been in the past, we know is still in there," Kapler said. "It didn't disappear. ... The confidence that we have in guys like Rhys Hoskins and in Scott Kingery, it doesn't go away because they're struggling a little bit. And that's true for our pitchers too. They struggle a little bit, we try to look for spots to pop 'em again and get that confidence back and get them rolling."