Hector Neris

Phillies bullpen: 'Second layer' of relievers crucial with so many doubleheaders

Phillies bullpen: 'Second layer' of relievers crucial with so many doubleheaders

With at least six doubleheaders over the next six weeks, the Phillies could find themselves in a position similar to this past Wednesday semi-frequently. And that is not good for a team with so many bullpen questions.

On Wednesday, the Phils did not use closer Hector Neris in the second game of a doubleheader against the Yankees because he warmed up and threw one pitch to finish Game 1. Instead, the Phils went with Tommy Hunter in the last inning of a tie game at home — a spot that ordinarily goes to a closer — and he put four men on, allowing two runs without recording an out in a 3-1 Phillies loss.

What happens the next time Neris is used in Game 1 and things are late and close in Game 2? What happens if the Phillies are forced to also use their few other somewhat reliable relievers in the first game like Adam Morgan and Jose Alvarez?

"We have to get our bullpen 2.0, which means we know that our veteran guys Neris, Morgan, Hunter and Alvarez, we know they have a track record," first-year Phillies pitching coach Bryan Price said Saturday. "It's finding out what these other guys can do because they will have to assist and take the load off of those guys when it comes to finish a game, the second game of a doubleheader where you have a chance to sweep but you've used your high-leverage guys in the first game. 

"We don't want to get to that point where we have to throw our best guys two games and then have to do it again in two or three days. It's important that we have a second layer of bullpen guys that are established and trustworthy in those late-game situations. And that's what we're finding out here in the early part of this 60-game season."

Middle relief is an issue for most teams, but perhaps most importantly, the Phillies lack true right-handed setup options in front of Neris. They do not have a right-hander in the 'pen with a big, consistently plus fastball. Theoretically, it could be Nick Pivetta, but he so frequently misses over the middle of the plate. 

When you know you have the eighth inning locked down, close games become less stressful. When you don't have one, every night is a cross-your-fingers adventure.

The Phils' bullpen held up again on Saturday night, allowing just one baserunner over three scoreless innings in a 5-0 win over the Braves. Over the last two games, the maligned unit has allowed just two runs over eight innings.

"We're not a power bullpen per se, compared to a lot of other clubs," Price said. "But what we were excited about coming out of spring training was we had a true sinkerballer in Reggie McClain. We had a guy with a depth changeup like Deolis Guerra. Each one of these guys had a skill set that really seemed to work well. And then of course Ramon Rosso has one of the best arms in our bullpen, power and a hard breaking pitch."

Perhaps the Phillies' bullpen would be farther ahead if it had any semblance of a routine. Their season began two weeks ago Friday night, and entering the Braves series, the Phillies had missed as many games to postponements as they had played.

"This has been a mess for us," Price understated. "This isn't about excuses, it's about the reality. We went a stretch there where we weren't able to play a game. We had one scrimmage in that week. We got on the field one time in five days during a stretch and then we come out of it and go to Yankee Stadium right away. 

"Our starters are losing the ability to get stretched out and that puts a bigger onus on the bullpen. There's zero continuity. We haven't gotten to a stretch in the season where we've been able to play three, four, five, six, seven days in a row. Where guys can get regular work and start to understand if there is a role definition. Right now, we've got a kid like Rosso who hasn't pitched since opening day on July 24. 

"Setting expectations for young people that aren't terribly experienced at this level is unrealistic in these first couple weeks. But after these first couple weeks, we'll have a better idea of what to work with."

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Hector Neris picks up biggest outs of young season in confidence-builder for Phillies bullpen

Hector Neris picks up biggest outs of young season in confidence-builder for Phillies bullpen

As Phillies manager Joe Girardi maneuvered his way through the middle and late innings with a beleaguered bullpen in a close game Thursday night, one thought weighed uncomfortably on his mind.

Girardi's counterpart, New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone, had decided this was the night to rest one of the most dangerous hitters on the planet. But just because Aaron Judge was out of the starting lineup didn't mean he and his lethal power bat wouldn't be a factor in the game.

Sure enough, with the Phillies desperately clinging to a one-run lead with two outs in the eighth inning and a man on third base, the hulking Judge grabbed his bat and strode toward the plate.

Girardi responded by replacing lefty reliever Jose Alvarez with right-handed closer Hector Neris.

Phillies fans beyond the centerfield gate and those watching on television held their breath.

Five pitches later, they could exhale as Neris got Judge to swing over a splitter for strike three. It was the biggest out of the young season — at least for an inning. Neris allowed a pair of two-out hits in the ninth before retiring Luke Voit on a ball to the warning track to complete a 5-4 victory over the Yankees.

The win gave the Phils a split of the four-game series with one of baseball's most powerful teams.

J.T. Realmuto and Phil Gosselin stood out with the bats and Zach Eflin pitched well in his season debut as the Phillies improved their record to 3-4. 

But the star of the game was an unlikely unit, a bullpen that had been scorched for 17 earned runs in 16⅔ innings in the early part of the season.

The 'pen was handed a 5-2 lead in the fifth inning and got 15 outs to preserve a one-run victory. Nick Pivetta allowed a two-run homer in the seventh for the bullpen's only blemish. But Pivetta did get six of the 15 outs.

Neris got four huge outs, including the strikeout of Judge, who leads the majors with seven homers and 17 RBIs in his first 12 games.

Yes, Girardi thought about having Neris walk Judge and go after Gio Urshela. But he didn't think about it for too long.

"You know, Aaron Judge, as great a hitter as he is, if you make your pitches you have a chance," Girardi said. "I thought Hector and J.T. had a great plan and they executed it."

Realmuto, the Phillies catcher, sensed that Judge would be looking for a first-pitch splitter because Neris is known for that pitch and threw it 66 percent of the time to lead off an at-bat last season. So Realmuto called for two straight fastballs then three straight splitters and it got the job done.

"That's a dangerous at-bat for any pitcher because if you make a mistake he can hit it out of the ballpark anywhere," Girardi said. "Hector was fantastic. 

"When you look at what our bullpen did tonight, they gave us five strong innings against arguably the best lineup in baseball. Just an outstanding job."

Girardi admitted that his heart may have skipped a beat when Voit launched his ball to center in the last at-bat of the game. Off the bat, it looked like it had a chance to be a three-run homer and more misery for the bullpen.

"You worry because you know how strong these guys are and how far they hit the ball," Girardi said. "But you feel a little bit better when you see your centerfielder nestle under it."

The bullpen needed a little confidence-builder after a rough start to the season. But there's not much time to savor the performance. The Braves arrive Friday night for a four-game series.

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Phillies GM Matt Klentak offers specifics on team's COVID-19 cases, including the mistakes

Phillies GM Matt Klentak offers specifics on team's COVID-19 cases, including the mistakes

Confusion over who has tested positive for COVID-19, who hasn’t, who came in contact with someone who has been infected, and who’s at practice and not at practice led Phillies general manager Matt Klentak to do the right thing Tuesday. 

He received clearance from all the parties whose names have been connected to COVID-19 and presented everything as fact. 

No more hearsay, no more rumor. 

Klentak provided the following update:

- Hector Neris, who had tested positive, has cleared all his protocols and is in camp, ready to go.

- Tommy Hunter and Scott Kingery, both of whom tested positive, are feeling healthy. They are not in camp, however, because they are going through protocols. Klentak used the word “re-testing.” Players have to test negative twice before they can return to the group.

- Mikie Mahtook, a nonroster outfielder, tested positive during intake screening and is sidelined.

- Three members of the staff, bench coach Rob Thomson, bullpen coach Jim Gott and bullpen catcher Greg Brodzinski, were among the group that tested positive in Clearwater. They have yet to return to the group. “All three of them have been asymptomatic for some time but are still following the protocols before they can return,” Klentak said.

- Reliever Francisco Liriano has been absent from camp the last two days. Klentak said his absence was not connected to COVID-19.

- “He is evaluating the situation and whether he wants to play or not,” Klentak said. “I don't know exactly where that's going to go, but he's not been in camp the last few days and I'm not sure if he will return and if so when. But right now he's evaluating the situation before determining the next steps.”

Liriano had been projected to make the team.

Troubling lab errors 

There was a troubling bit of news in Klentak’s update.

Outfielder Adam Haseley made his first appearance in camp Tuesday. It had been speculated that he was absent because maybe he came in contact with someone who was infected. That’s what kept Aaron Nola away for a few days.

But it turns out that Haseley missed four team workouts because of what Klentak called a “lab error” during the testing process. 

“He took his tests as part of the intake screening process last week,” Klentak said. “The test was sent in with the rest of the tests and we never received a result from that. That's what happened. We're not pointing any fingers, but that's the reason his arrival to camp was delayed because we didn't have a result for his tests. Once we realized that we weren't going to get that result we retested him and he tested negative and today is the first day he could be back. There's really no issues whatsoever with Adam. He's done everything right. He's never been sick and we're happy to have him back on the field today. 

“It's going to be critical that the testing is done reliably and done quickly. The league folks, the Players Association folks, and the folks at the lab are doing the best they can, and we absolutely understand that this is a huge undertaking and it's the first time that these parties have ever gone through that. So, we understand all that. Nevertheless, it's frustrating for a player like Adam Haseley or the Phillies when something like that happens, and our hope throughout the league is that as we work through these instances early, that we will be able to smooth them out for later in camp and later in the season.”

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