Phillies

What an unlikely turnaround it's been for Hector Neris

What an unlikely turnaround it's been for Hector Neris

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If someone told you when Hector Neris was sent to the minors at the end of June that he'd be picking up a save in late September for a Phillies team still trying to win games, would you have believed it?

Neris was an afterthought for much of the summer. After giving up three homers to the Nationals on June 29, he was optioned to the minors to get his splitter, command and confidence back. He had blown three saves and had several epic ninth-inning meltdowns.

It was fair to wonder if Neris would ever again pitch for the Phillies in the late innings of a meaningful game.

But Neris regained the confidence of his manager and the Phils' front office by doing his job at Triple A and dominating in the majors in the month of August. Last month, he pitched nine shutout innings with 20 strikeouts and two walks. His opponents hit .100.

And there Neris was Tuesday night, pitching the ninth inning against the Mets with the Phillies up 5-2 (see first take). His frame was the quickest all night. He struck out Kevin Plawecki and Austin Jackson and got a soft groundout to seal the win.

It was Neris' first save since June 17 — more than three months ago.

"I think he absolutely has overcome the early-season issues," manager Gabe Kapler said. "This is a different pitcher. We were looking at some of the numbers against the Mets and some of them had some success early in the season. But this is not the same guy. So that success they had was not against this Hector Neris. 

"This is a Hector Neris I'm not sure any of us have seen. This is a better version. Since he's been back, this is a better version of him than his best last season or the season prior. My personal opinion, I'm sure it's debatable."

There is so much volatility and turnover in relief performance that Neris could very well excel next season. It's not a lock, but it also wouldn't be the first time a trip to the minors gave a struggling pitcher the jolt he needed.

What stands out about Neris this season is his strikeout rate. He has 70 K's in 44 innings. That's 14.3 strikeouts per nine innings. The only National League pitcher with a higher strikeout rate is Josh Hader. In the AL, it's only Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and Mariners stud closer Edwin Diaz.

The main issue earlier in the season was splitter command. Neris couldn't throw his out-pitch for a strike and his opponents started laying off the splitter that dips below the strike zone. He fell behind in counts, had to throw more fastballs and the home runs piled up.

"The changes are that I stopped thinking," Neris said, speaking for the first time since being promoted back to the majors on Aug. 14. 

"Any job is better when you're doing good. I appreciate my teammates here. Everyone talked to me (when I was at Triple A). They were behind me and told me to be positive and said that everyone knew I could come back."

It will be interesting to see how long Neris can make this last. Kapler has utilized many different closers this season — one night it's Seranthony Dominguez, the next it's Tommy Hunter, with a little Pat Neshek sprinkled in and now Neris looks like an option.

You can add him to the list of cost-controlled Phillies looking to impress and give himself an inside track to an opening day roster spot in 2019.

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Phillies have work cut out vs. MLB’s most underrated ace

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Phillies have work cut out vs. MLB’s most underrated ace

Last night was a cap-tipping game based on how excellent Kyle Freeland was, using his cutter to jam or freeze Phillies right-handed hitters on the inside corner and to front-door their left-handed hitters. 

Tonight, the Phillies face an even tougher opponent, a pitcher who may be the most underrated ace going right now. 

When: 8:40 p.m. — Pregame Live at 8

Where: NBC Sports Philadelphia and streaming live on the MyTeams app and NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com

Pitching matchup: Vince Velasquez (0-0, 2.25) vs. German Marquez (2-1, 2.00) 

Soon to be a household name

Marquez has been one of the five best pitchers in baseball since last August. In his last dozen starts of 2018, Marquez had a 2.24 ERA with 110 strikeouts in 80 innings. That included seven shutout innings with 11 K’s against the Phillies last September at Coors Field. 

This season? More of the same. Marquez is coming off of a one-hit shutout of the Giants Sunday. 

Marquez’s fastball averages 96 mph but his slider and curveball are even more dangerous. Since last August, his opponents are 6 for 100 against his curveball (seriously) and 19 for 115 against his slider. That’s a combined .116 batting average. 

Both are swing-and-miss pitches that hitters have trouble lifting. 

This is why Marquez was recently paid. He signed a five-year, $43M extension the first week of April. 

Cold 3-4

The Phillies are 3-3 since Saturday but in those six games, Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins are 6 for 45 (.133) with one combined RBI. Neither has had the right timing down at the plate. 

J.T. Realmuto is hot, hitting .351 with 11 RBI in his last nine games, but the Phillies are still yet to have their 3-4-5 hitters clicking at the same time. 

Velasquez’s turn

Velasquez pitched well in his first two starts against the Nationals and Marlins but tonight is a different sort of test. 

In three career starts at Coors Field, Velasquez has a 6.14 ERA with 19 hits allowed and 10 walks in 14 2/3 innings. He’s nibbled when pitching in Colorado because of the harm that can be done when you miss over the plate there. Nibbling is when Velasquez is most frustrating and least effective. He has the arsenal to overpower the Rockies’ lineup once or twice through the order, but the leash probably won’t be long unless he’s dealing. 

Zach Eflin last night did what a pitcher needs to do at Coors Field: keep the ball low. He induced a season-high 11 groundballs and was victimized only on pitches at the belt or above. The four times the Rockies made contact in that location, they had three hits off Eflin, including the Ryan McMahon three-run homer.

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Eight years later, the one that got away comes back to haunt the Phillies

Eight years later, the one that got away comes back to haunt the Phillies

DENVER – If things had worked out differently eight years ago, lefty Kyle Freeland might have pitched six shutout innings for the Phillies instead of against them on Thursday night.

Freeland’s work on the mound and Ryan McMahon’s work at the plate (five RBIs on a pair of homers) backboned the Colorado Rockies’ 6-2 win over the Phillies at Coors Field (see observations).

Zach Eflin pitched well before an error by shortstop Scott Kingery, a base hit and a three-run homer turned the game in the Rockies’ favor in the sixth inning.

Save for a two-run homer by J.T. Realmuto in the seventh, the Phillies’ bats did little in one of the best places to hit in baseball. Four of the Phils’ five hits were singles and one of those was an infield hit.

The top four hitters in the Phillies’ lineup were 0 for 14.

After the game, manager Gabe Kapler tipped his cap to the Rockies’ starting pitcher.

“I think the story was Freeland,” Kapler said. “He was really good. He really commanded the inside part of the plate. He made it very difficult for us to get anything going. We weren’t able to score any runs. It’s tough to score two runs and win in this ballpark.”

Freeland was one of the game’s breakout pitchers last season. He went 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA in 33 starts and finished fourth in National League Cy Young voting. He’d started against the Phillies once in 2017, but had to come out in the first inning with a groin injury. He entered this start 1-3 with a 5.40 ERA on the new season, but clearly did his homework on the Phillies. He gave up just two hits, walked none and struck out seven.

“I noticed when I started watching video two days ago that they have guys with big leg kicks and they’re trying to get the perfect timing with the pitcher,” he said. “It’s kind of easy to start messing with their timing.”

Freeland did that by varying the interval of the hesitation in his delivery.

“I can hold that for a whole inning,” he said of the pause on his leg kick.

Freeland, who turns 26 in May, actually has a significant connection to the Phillies. He was selected by the Phils in the 35th round of the 2011 draft as a high school senior out of the Denver area. Freeland opted not to sign. He attended the University of Evansville and in 2014 was drafted in the first round by the Rockies. He was picked eighth overall, one slot behind Aaron Nola, and received a $2.3 million signing bonus from the Rockies.

Had Freeland signed with the Phillies out of high school, he and Nola might now be teammates.

And the Phillies would have a lefty in their rotation.

“The Phillies picked me as a draft-and-follow so I continued to play summer ball that year then they offered at the end of the summer,” Freeland said. “We couldn’t get to the price point that I wanted. It was a tough decision for me. I wanted to go play pro ball. I also had a great offer on the table to go play for Evansville and I think it’s safe to say I made the right choice.”

Freeland would not say how far apart he and the Phillies were back in 2011. But he did mention how much the Phils had on the table.

“You’re 18 years old and you have someone throwing a quarter of a million dollars at you,” he said. “I really didn’t know anyone who had been through the process so it was hard for me to lean on anybody. So it was a decision I had to make on my own and I’ve never had any regrets.

“But at the time it was tough. One thing that was nice is going to college I had three years where I knew I was going to play where as going into pro ball as a 35th rounder, if you don’t pan out in the first season and a half you might get canned.

“I made the right decision.”

It's difficult to argue with that.

Nonetheless, the Phillies sure would like to have had Kyle Freeland on their side Thursday night. What might have been.

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