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.
Neris walking off after that save like... pic.twitter.com/L4xn15z0Vl— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) September 19, 2018
"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.