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April 28, 2016

Armed with a deadly splitter, Hector Neris impressing in Phillies 'pen

WASHINGTON – On Easter Sunday, as the Phillies headed into the final week of spring training with more than a couple of roster decisions looming, Pete Mackanin watched his team drop a fairly forgettable 5-1 loss to the Boston Red Sox in Fort Myers.

Except that there was at least one, two-inning portion of the game that was hardly forgettable for the manager, who was looking for someone, anyone to separate themselves in a battle for nearly a handful of openings in the bullpen.

“I was happy with (Hector) Neris today,” Mackanin said that afternoon in Florida, when the 26-year-old right-hander retired six of the seven batters he faced. “He threw a lot of splits and that’s what I want to see. If you got a split or a real good changeup that you can throw for strikes, I’d like to see it more often if it’s an out-pitch.”

Mackanin told Neris as much that day. And, one month later, Neris has graduated from the bubble of the 25-man roster to set-up man in an improving bullpen.

Although Mackanin said recently that roles are still being defined in a ‘pen without any one established closer or set-up man, save veteran David Hernandez, Neris pitched the eighth inning in front of current closer Jeanmar Gomez in three wins in the first five games of the Phillies trip through Milwaukee and Washington.

Neris has allowed one earned run on six hits in 12 appearances this season. He’s racked up 20 strikeouts while walking just four in 13 innings.

It’s a stark contrast to his final 15 games of the 2015 season, when he had a 6.00 ERA, and allowed six home runs and an opponents .931 OPS in 18 innings.

“Every year is a new year, the past is the past,” Neris said. “And every time you come here you have to keep working on something to get better. I worked this offseason, on my command on how I attack hitters. And now I’ve been able to do that here and do it well.”

Three weeks into the season, entering play Thursday, Neris was one of three major league relievers, along with Yankees relief ace Dellin Betances and former Phillies prospect Trevor May, who have appeared in at least 10 games and have struck out 20 batters.

Coming into Thursday, Neris had struck out 20 of the 49 batters (40.8 percent) he’s faced this season. Only three relievers who have appeared in at least 10 games have a higher strikeout percentage: Betances (60.5 percent), Boston’s Craig Kimbrel (43.9 percent), and St. Louis’s Seung-hwan Oh (42.2 percent).

(Worth noting: Hernandez ranks sixth on the same list, at 37.2 percent).

On Tuesday night in Washington, in his first of back-to-back scoreless eighth inning outings against the Nationals, Neris walked Daniel Murphy to begin his outing but recovered quickly, ending his appearances with back-to-back strikeouts of Danny Espinosa and Joe Lobaton with a fastball (that reaches 94-MPH) and split-finger combo.

“Neris really has been an eye-opener this year,” Mackanin said. “It boils down to his ability to throw strikes with his split. I was concerned early (Tuesday) because he wasn’t using it, (and I) wondered why he wasn’t doing it. And then he went to it. That’s a swing-and-miss pitch. … It takes a while to get into that mindset, who you are and what you’re doing.”

During his rookie season last summer, Neris said he was “unsure” about his split. It accounted for just 28.2 percent of the pitches he’s thrown. He was throwing more sliders (14.1 percent) with his fastball (57.6 percent).

The results were mostly mixed and he was prone to the long ball. Neris allowed eight home runs in 32 games last season. Only four big league relievers (minimum 40 innings) had a higher home run rate than Neris' 1.79 home runs-per-nine innings.

Neris has allowed one home run in 13 innings this season (0.7 home runs-per-nine innings). He’s also mostly ditched his slider (which accounts for 3.1 percent of his pitches this season) and listened to his manager and focuses on his split-fingered fastball (50.3 percent of his pitches this season).

“(By focusing on the split) he can sneak a fastball by you because he’s got enough velocity,” Mackanin said. “Or he can get ahead with a fastball and get those swings and misses (with it). Because when you’re geared for fastballs, you’re more prone to breaking balls in the dirt.”

“The more I use it, the more chances I have for my fastball, too,” Neris said. “(Mackanin) told me that this spring, and I’ve tried to keep doing that. … In any count I can throw it, starting an at-bat, when I’m behind in the count. It also depends who’s at the plate. But the more I use it, the more confident I’ve become with it.”

Three weeks into the season, it’s hard to argue with the results. They are results that had Mackanin refer to Neris as a potential closer in the future earlier this week.

“Neris could eventually become a closer with that pitch he’s got - it’s a great pitch,” Mackanin said. “We tried to convince him in spring training to use it more often. It’s like with a knuckleball pitcher. A knuckleball pitcher throws 90 percent knuckleballs. If you can throw that pitch for a strike, or gets swings and misses, why not throw it more? And he did it and he’s been real effective.”

Where Hector Neris ranks among MLB relievers (min. 10 games): 

 Stat Neris's number MLB rank
 K %40.84th 
 ERA0.69 7th
WHIP 0.769  15th
 Opp. OPS .452 15th
K/BB  5.0 16th