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August 29, 2016

Hats off to Hector Neris ... future Phillies closer?

After each scoreless appearance this season – including 20 perfect innings, retiring all three batters he faced – Hector Neris immediately uses his pitching hand to remove his hat as he walks off the mound in celebration. Maikel Franco or Freddy Galvis often tap him on his bare head en route to the dugout.

Neris said it's a habit he's had for as long as he can remember. 

“I want to give praise to God,” the good-natured Neris said Monday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park.

Nineteen of those 20 perfect frames Neris has collected have come in the eighth inning, where he has quickly established himself as one of baseball’s most effective set-up men.

Neris entered Monday with a 2.17 ERA in 65 games this season.

His ERA ranks 15th among major league relievers who have pitched at least 50 innings this season. Only St. Louis’s Zach Duke (66) has made more appearances.

Among NL relievers with at least 40 innings, Neris’s 0.96 WHIP ranks 10th, his 11.40 K/9 rate ranks 8th, and his 4.42 K/BB rate ranks 9th. Neris has struck out 32.3 percent of the batters he’s faced in 2016, which ranks 7th best in the National League.

Since the 2016 season is one of development for the Phillies, and there probably is no better time to continue seeing what you have in players than in the season’s final month, when the daily standings show a rebuilding team there isn’t much else to play for, wouldn’t it behoove the coaching staff and front office to see if Neris can turn his inning-ending hat tip into postgame handshakes instead?

Wouldn’t it be a wise idea to let him try his hand in the ninth inning, to see if he can close games, too?

“I don’t know if we want to do that,” manager Pete Mackanin said before the Phillies game against the Washington Nationals. “I’ve thought of that a lot. Even last year when (Jonathan Papelbon) was here, (Ken) Giles was so unbelievable in the 8th. And Pap got the job done, but he doesn’t have the stuff that Giles did. The three-up, three-down strikeout innings. And I kept thinking we might be better off with Giles closing.

You never know until a guy goes out there... [Closing a game] is like making that three-foot putt with the little bend in it to win the trophy.

“But it’s a different animal. We had to use Neris to save a game this year. But that’s a tougher job for a number of reasons – you have to have the right demeanor. And for (Jeanmar) Gomez to do what he’s done is really special.”

To read into Mackanin’s line of thinking, it wouldn’t be right from the manager’s perceptive to demote Gomez, who doesn’t have the same strikeout stuff that Neris has but has converted 34 of 38 save opportunities this season.

“I know what you’re getting at,” Mackanin said of the logic of trying out Neris in September. “And it’s something to think about. But I don’t want to do it because Jeanmar has earned the right to be called the closer as good as he’s done.”

Since the Phillies are unlikely to be contenders in 2017, it probably doesn’t make any difference trying out Neris in the ninth inning in September this year or in April next year, if circumstances changed (as in if Gomez was on the disabled or traded or struggling). And keeping Neris effective and confident are equally as important in his development, so keeping him and fellow young and promising reliever Edubray Ramos where they're at (in the eight and seventh innings, respectively) makes sense in the if-it-ain’t-broke, don’t-fix-it way of looking at the Phils’ current bullpen.

As the Phillies saw in the first week of the season, when both David Hernandez and Dalier Hinojosa auditioned (and flunked) as closers, it’s not always about a pitcher’s stuff in the ninth, but also his mentality. Mackanin recalled his time on the Montreal Expos coaching staff a decade and a half ago, when Ugueth Urbina was out and manager Felipe Alou turned to former starter Dustin Hermanson for the ninth inning.

“Felipe made him the closer because he threw high 90s and had nasty (stuff),” Mackanin said. “But when he went out there, he just didn’t cut it. He was like a different pitcher. So you never know until a guy goes out there and you see what happens. It’s like making that three-foot putt with the little bend in it to win the trophy.”

With that said, if Mackanin’s actions back his words, the Phillies won’t know how Neris would respond to such a challenge as they enter the offseason. But perhaps they’re aware that high-stress innings (not that the eighth is any less stressful at times) could add an extra burden to a reliever that’s already racked up more innings than all but four pitchers in the N.L.

Neris’s workload has been steady since the start of the season. The Phillies will have an opportunity to adjust his role, if only slightly, when rosters expand later this week.

Mackanin said he expected to add “a couple of arms” when the team opens a series with Atlanta on Friday, with other pitchers likely added later in the month, too, once the minor league season concludes.

“The main reason is I want to protect Ramos, Neris, and Gomez as much as possible,” Mackanin said. “So that gives us a chance to not worry about having length in the bullpen. So if we tied a game or I bring in a guy because we’re getting beat (badly) like the other night, and the guy can’t get anybody out and doesn’t even complete an inning, and you get closer and closer to (having to use) Neris, (I won’t have to). I don’t want to use Neris unless we have a lead.”

Five months in, that’s a game plan that’s worked well for Neris and the Phillies in 2016.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21