Héctor Neris struck out Ronald Acuna Thursday afternoon to start the top of the ninth inning. At that moment, the Phillies closer had strung together 8 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing just four hits and three walks while striking out 12 in the process.
A few blinks of the eye later, Freddie Freeman completed an eight-pitch at-bat by connecting on a 96-mph fastball that dropped a few feet beyond the center-field wall and into the Citizens Bank Park shrubbery for a solo home run.
The Phillies’ series finale with the Atlanta Braves was tied 1-1 and boos cascaded down upon Neris.
Such is the life of a big-league closer.
When a starting pitcher covers 8 2/3 scoreless innings and gives up a home run to tie the game at 1-1 in the top of the ninth inning, he almost always leaves to a loud, appreciative ovation.
When you’re a closer, it’s all about the work you’ve done that day. And even though he was booed twice more – once after walking Ozzie Albies and again as he walked off the mound at the end of the inning – Neris had done a pretty good job by holding the heart of the Atlanta order to a single run.
“The one thing I would tell my players is, ‘Look, the fans in Philly are extremely passionate and they want us to win,’ " manager Joe Girardi said when asked about the harsh treatment of Neris. “They’re not booing really who you are. It’s not saying they don’t like you as a person. They just want to win and it’s their way of showing frustration when we don’t win. So in a way they’re really pulling for us, but when we don’t perform they let us know.”
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Perhaps that’s true, but there is a long-running debate in this town about whether Neris is equipped to be a closer. Forget about that title for a moment and just accept this: Neris has been one of the best pitchers on the Phillies’ staff this season and one of the best relief pitchers in baseball.
“He has closed three-quarters [of his save opportunities],” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said Friday morning. “A good league average is about 80%, so he’s right at the verge of that and was there before [Thursday]. He has pitched very well for us, really. That’s the life of a closer and they’ve been living it forever. Every game they come into is close, right?”
Let’s examine the work turned in by Neris so far this season. Save conversions are obviously a critical part of a closer’s job, but not all blown saves can be looked upon in the same way. As we noted, Neris entered the ninth Thursday and was facing Acuna and Freeman to start the inning. If he had been facing the 7-8-9 hitters, it would have been a different story.
Blow that save and it’s a bad one.
Neris’ first blown save of the season came in an extra-inning game against the Mets, which meant he entered the game with a runner on second base and nobody out. Pete Alonso was the first batter of the inning and he singled to tie the game. Neris later walked a batter and gave up an infield single before Jonathan Villar delivered a game-winning single.
It was hardly an implosion, and you can argue that pitchers should not even be charged with blown saves when they enter the game with a runner on second and nobody out to start an extra inning. It is already considered an unearned run.
Neris’ second blown save, which occurred May 8 in Atlanta, was a brutal one. With the Phillies up 3-1 going into the bottom of the ninth, Neris got the first two outs of the inning before walking Ehire Adrianza on a 3-2 splitter. Pablo Sandoval followed with a game-tying two-run homer on a 1-2 pitch that caught way too much of home plate. The Braves went on to win in 12 innings.
As a closer, Neris almost always is entering the game in a high-leverage situation. According to BaseballReference.com, a total of 18 of his 26 appearances have come in such situations. Through Thursday, he was one of 27 pitchers to be inserted into at least 15 high-leverage situations. Among those 27, he has the ninth-lowest ERA at 2.13.
In Neris’ 23 appearances besides his three blown saves, he has allowed two earned runs on 12 hits in 22 1/3 innings for a 0.81 ERA. Neris’ ERA among closers who have pitched at least 20 innings this season ranked 10th through Thursday’s games and his .189 batting average against was 13th.
“He’s not perfect,” Dombrowski said. “Really, no closer is. There are very few Mariano Riveras out there, so he has done a solid job for us. Unfortunately, that’s what closers have to deal with. Unless they are absolutely dominant … they are going to give up runs, and when they give up a run it blows a save. That’s the life. It has been like that forever and it’s never going to change.”