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March 05, 2017

For two Phillies relievers, pitching in World Baseball Classic is an honor

CLEARWATER, Fla. – It’s a safe assumption that the fourth installment of the World Baseball Classic will not rival college basketball in television ratings in March.

Among hardcore baseball people, sure, people will tune into baseball if it’s on TV. But when a lot of the game’s premier young stars decline the opportunity to play in the WBC, a group that includes Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Kris Bryant, among many others, it’s going to be a bit of a tough sell to the general public, right?

When recently asked if he regretted declining an opportunity to pitch for Team USA in the WBC, New York Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard was rather blunt.

“Nope, not one bit,” he said. “I’m a Met. And ain’t nobody made it to the Hall of Fame or win a World Series playing in the WBC.”

The muffled sound you just heard was MLB commissioner Rob Manfred crying.

While the game of baseball revolves around its stars and a marquee tournament will only become must-see TV if they all show up (an impossibility given the timing, among other issues), there are still plenty of players downright giddy to take part in the World Baseball Classic.

Like Phillies reliever Hector Neris.

The 27-year-old rising set-up reliever grinned ear to ear when asked if he was leaving camp during the Phillies off day on Monday for the WBC. And, no, it wasn’t because he was getting a break from the monotony of Spring Training, but because he was truly appreciative of the invitation to pitch for his country.

“I believe it’s going to push me to be better in my career,” Neris said Sunday at Spectrum Field in Clearwater, Fla., shortly after the Phillies took an 8-5 win over the Detroit Tigers in an exhibition game. “When you see your name is a part of this group, this special of a group, you want to push yourself to be better and better. ... I’m here (with the Phillies) to win a championship. I’m here to help my team to reach that.

“So (when the day comes), I can do this because I’ve been there before. I don’t have to panic in any situation because I’ve done it before. The manager, my pitching coach, the whole team, they’ll say, ‘Neris, he can do it’ because I’ve had that (experience).”

Neris will pitch for the Dominican Republic, the defending WBC champions. Four other Phillies will join their WBC in the next two days, too, before the tournament begins on Thursday: Odubel Herrera (Venezuela), Nick Pivetta (Canada), Jorge Alfaro (Colombia), and Pat Neshek (United States).

Despite its immense pool of talent, even without the likes of Trout, Harper and others, the United States has yet to advance to a WBC championship game, let alone win a tournament, since it began in 2006.

“It’s baseball, so it’s going to be who shows up that day,” Neshek said. “It might be tough to get out of pool play. … So I don’t know. That lineup we’ve got, though, it’s a tough lineup.”

Neshek is a baseball fan at heart (he has a pretty vast autograph collection) and was more than happy to accept an invitation to pitch out of Team USA’s bullpen when Joe Torre called him up not long before Phillies camp opened last month.

“It’s a big honor when you get considered for something like that,” said the 36-year-old Neshek, who added that his only comparable experience was being named to the 2014 All-Star team.

But how about guys like Syndergaard brushing it away like it’s some amateur event?

“Yeah, but I can see where he’s coming from,” Neshek said. “He’s a young guy trying to establish himself. He wants to do what’s best for his team. It’s great. For a guy like me, I think when I’m done playing and I look back down the road, I’ll think, ‘That was pretty cool.’ I’ve got two kids and they want to see me do that. We should get some good family photos out of it. For me, it’s a thing of honor. I’m sure (Syndergaard) has had that opportunity a bunch of times as a big prospect. I haven’t had that, so it’s cool.”

For Neris, it’s more than that. It’s a privilege to play, and one he doesn’t take lightly.

“I feel a lot of responsibility because you have your family, you have your country, you just have a lot of people looking to you,” Neris said. “And if you look around at all the players who would want this opportunity. And to be a part of this group, to know they want you because they’re confident you can help the country win – not the team, but the country.”

It’s fair to say that more folks in the Dominican Republic will be glued to their TV sets for the WBC than March Madness. Neris knows that and plans on pitching “for everybody,” from his mom and his young son to his cousins, his boyhood friends, and an uncle of his who apparently can predict the future.

“During the last WBC, my uncle was at my house and he told me, ‘Hey, you’re going to the next one,’” Neris said. “I was only in the minor leagues (in 2013). And I said, ‘Nah, I don’t have a chance to go there.’ And then last year when the team called me and asked me to play for the team, I told him and he cried. He cried. It’s unbelievable for me.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21