A year ago this month, Jay Bruce was playing for a fourth-place team, Hector Neris was nearing a demotion to triple A, and Scott Kingery was struggling mightily with his first taste of the major leagues. What a difference a year makes.

Bruce drove in a run, had two hits, and made a diving catch Tuesday night to keep the Phillies in first place. Kingery hit a three-run homer and continued to play with confidence. Neris locked down his 14th save of the season. A year ago, a night like Tuesday would have seemed impossible.

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— Matt Breen (extrainnings@inquirer.com)

Hector Neris has entered a game in the ninth inning or in a save situation 12 consecutive times.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Hector Neris has entered a game in the ninth inning or in a save situation 12 consecutive times.

Hector Neris is pitching like an All Star

The Phillies do not have a closer. They still operate with a bullpen that is free from labels and defined roles, as Gabe Kapler inserts his relief pitchers into the nightly situation he thinks suits them best instead of forcing them into situations dictated by what inning it is.

But for the last month, Kapler has used Hector Neris about as near to a traditional closer as he ever has. Neris retired all three batters he faced in Tuesday’s ninth inning. It was his 12th straight appearance in either the ninth inning or a save situation. In a bullpen without roles, Neris seems to have found his niche.

“Every day before we get the day started, we go through all of our relievers and talk about how we might use them in that game,” Kapler said. “Right now, I'm writing next to Hector's name, 'Punch, save.' Need a big strikeout in a huge situation, whenever that time is in the game, we're going to use Hector. Or Hector is an option.

"When we need to save a baseball game, he’s our No. 1 option right now. I don’t know what the situation is going to be when we have a fully stocked bullpen, but I can tell you how I feel about him right now. That’s it.”

So call Neris the Phillies’ “saver.” He is one of just three relievers who started the season on the roster and have yet to be placed on the injured list. His continued use in the ninth inning could be a byproduct of Kapler’s not having many other options. But that familiarity has seemed to suit Neris well. He has a 1.88 ERA in 28 appearances this season and has been the bullpen’s steadiest arm.

He has converted all 14 of his save chances this season and struck out 40 in 28 2/3 innings. He has allowed an earned run in just four of his 28 outings and has allowed just one of his 10 inherited runners to score. Neris is one of just three pitchers in baseball with at least 14 saves and a perfect save percentage.

Neris has been one of baseball’s most reliable relievers, and Kapler began a campaign after Tuesday’s win for Neris to become an All-Star.

Neris, Kapler said, has “been off-the-charts good” for the last year. And at the start of that year, when Neris was demoted to triple A at the end of last June, it would have been hard to imagine Neris’ being considered an All-Star.

“If there’s anybody that you bet on to bounce back, it’s probably Hector,” Kapler said. “Oftentimes, we wonder how a guy is going to come back from a demotion where we’re asking them to work on something to get their mojo and confidence back, to work on a pitch, or to work on their all-around game. We’ve seen early returns on that situation with Nick Pivetta. Certainly, with Hector, I don’t think you could dream of a better outcome than what we’ve gotten.

“Nobody deserves more credit than Hector. The work he put in, how resilient he is, how gritty he is, how determined he is. He wants the ball every single night in the biggest situations. He’s demonstrated that he’s capable of handling those situations.”

The rundown

How have the Phillies replaced Odubel Herrera and Andrew McCutchen in the outfield? By trading for Jay Bruce and inserting Scott Kingery. The Phillies’ two new outfielders continued to roll Tuesday night in a 7-4 victory over the Diamondbacks.

Jerad Eickhoff was removed from the starting rotation after he allowed five homers Monday night. The Phillies did not demote Eickhoff, but instead will try using him as a reliever. Kapler has not yet determined who will start for the Phillies on Sunday in Atlanta. “Everything is on the table,” Kapler said.

Charlie Manuel will be a bench coach for the first time in his career when he joins the staff of Jim Thome, his old pupil who will be the manager of the American League team in the Futures Game on July 7 in Cleveland. “I’ll probably try to manage. I’ll probably get mad if he doesn’t do what I tell him to do,” Manuel cracked.

Important dates

Tonight: Zach Eflin pitches the series finale against Diamondbacks right-hander Merrill Kelly, 7:05 p.m.

Tomorrow: The Phillies host the 35th annual Phillies Phestival at Citizens Bank Park to raise money for the fight against ALS, 3:30 p.m.

Friday: Phillies open a three-game series in Atlanta, 7:20 p.m.

Sunday: Phillies need to find a starter to replace Jerad Eickhoff, 1:20 p.m.

It's been 55 years since Johnny Callison's walk-off homer in the 1964 All-Star Game at Shea Stadium. Who will represent the Phillies this summer at the All-Star Game?
Associated Press
It's been 55 years since Johnny Callison's walk-off homer in the 1964 All-Star Game at Shea Stadium. Who will represent the Phillies this summer at the All-Star Game?

Stat of the day

The initial returns of the All-Star voting do not look good for the Phillies with 10 days remaining in the first round of fan voting. Major League Baseball changed the voting method this year, running a “Primary Election” until June 21. The top three vote-getters at each position (top nine for outfielders) then move on to a 28-hour “General Election” that ends on June 27. The winners of the “General Election” will be the starters July 9 in Cleveland.

If voting ended Tuesday, only J.T. Realmuto would advance to the “General Election,” as he has the third-most votes among National League catchers. Cesar Hernandez has the most votes among all Phillies, but is fourth among second basemen. Bryce Harper has the 10th-most votes among NL outfielders, and Rhys Hoskins has the seventh most among NL first basemen. The Phillies will need a push.

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @matt_breen.

Question: I am obviously worried about our pitching but I think another weakness that is not discussed might be our defense. My question is, if the pitching gets straightened out (most important) can this defense carry us into or far into the playoffs? — Gary O. via email

Answer: Thanks, Gary. I think you hit it on the head by saying “most important” after “if the pitching gets straightened out.” If the Phillies make the playoffs, it will be because their starting rotation has improved. There’s no way that the team can reach the playoffs without that improvement. I still expect that improvement to come via a trade sometime before July 31.

But a good defense helps a pitching staff. The Phillies defense has not been perfect, but it has been better than last season. I think right now the Phillies are playing well enough in the field that it won’t hold them back from a playoff spot.

I would expect Scott Kingery to return often to third base once Roman Quinn and Adam Haseley return or if the team trades for a center fielder. Jay Bruce made an excellent catch Tuesday night and believes he can play everyday in left field. The Phillies are also shifting less than they did last season, as it seems they are trusting their fielders more.