WASHINGTON — Hector Neris slapped his thigh late on Saturday, hopped on one leg, and began to jog from the bullpen. It was fewer than 24 hours earlier that Neris had walked off the mound after a brutal night. Now, he was running toward it.
Andrew Knapp, who watched Friday from the dugout as Neris allowed three runs in a crushing loss to the rival Braves, was waiting for Neris behind the plate. Earlier in the day, the catcher read how Neris responded to Friday’s loss by saying, “I got it tomorrow for sure.”
That was enough for Knapp to know his pitcher would be OK.
Neris has converted 15 of his 16 save chances this season and 18 of his last 19 dating to last season. In a Phillies season plagued by injured relievers, Neris has been the bullpen’s most reliable arm. He has built his career on a devastating splitter, which he has thrown this season on 73 percent of his pitches.
But perhaps more important than his splitter is the pitcher’s resiliency. It has been more than a year since Neris allowed a run in consecutive appearances, a span that covers 58 outings. A bad night, like the one Neris had on Friday, never seems to linger.
Long before he was a reliever with a short memory, Neris was a teenager in the Dominican Republic with a voided contract and a crushed dream. His resiliency had been tested long before he left the bullpen on Saturday night.
“You have to have a strong mind,” Neris said. “Focus on who you are instead of who you aren’t. You have to turn the page. You can’t do anything about the last day. If it’s bad, it’s bad. Prepare for the next day.”
Neris did not begin playing baseball until he was 18, but he had enough raw talent for Kansas City to make him an offer. It was just for $5,000, but it still was a professional deal. Neris accepted. But soon the agreement would be voided.
There were inaccuracies on Neris’ paperwork with his father’s last name. He was raised by his stepfather after his biological father moved to the U.S. Neris was sent away from the Royals’ Dominican academy and returned home deflated.
Neris had been playing baseball for only two years, but that was enough for him. He told Jose Luis Nivar -- his mentor, better known as “Chulo Pelota” -- that he was quitting. But Nivar told Neris to keep chasing his dream. Nivar, Neris said, had a gun.
A radar gun?
“No, a gun. A real gun,” Neris said. “He said he’d shoot me. I said, ‘I don’t want to play baseball.’ He said ‘No, you have to play.’ He got the gun. He said, ‘If you don’t play, I’ll kill you.’ I played. I have to thank him because he pushed me to be here.”
With his dream pushed to the brink, Neris flashed his resilience. He had signed with the Royals with such little experience. Surely, he thought, he could land another deal. A year later, Neris had the Phillies’ attention. They asked Kansas City what the holdup was and then contacted Neris’ biological father to check the facts.
The Phillies signed him for $17,000 and Neris canceled the tryout he had scheduled that afternoon for a handful of other teams. Kansas City voiding his deal earned Neris a $12,000 raise. His professional career -- thanks to a bit of resilience -- was ready to begin.
“It’s the process of my life,” Neris said. “It’s the school for me. It’s what makes me strong. It was a hard moment for me and my family and my mom.”
The Phillies rallied Saturday night in Atlanta to score two runs in the top of the ninth inning to go up, 6-5. For the second straight night, the Phillies carried a lead into the bottom of the ninth. Gabe Kapler had watched Neris erupt on Friday night, but that did not sway the manager’s decision-making on Saturday. He did not hesitate to have Neris run in from the bullpen.
After all, Neris was the pitcher the Phillies sent to triple A last June and then was named National League reliever of the month for August.
“Since I’ve been here, if he’s giving up damage, it’s, ‘I can’t wait to have the ball back. I want to pitch tomorrow night; please give me that opportunity again.’ It’s kind of what you ask for in any player,” Kapler said. “A player makes an error, the mentality is, ‘I want the ball hit to me.’ You struggle in eight consecutive bad at-bats, you can’t wait to get up there for your next at-bat. I think that’s what separates successful major-leaguers long term from guys who can kind of stick around for three or four years.”
“If I was going to bet on who would might have a 10-to-15-year career, I’d probably bet on Hector Neris because of how resilient he is, how tough he is and how much struggling has not fazed him.”
Neris threw just seven pitches to Knapp on Saturday and he retired the three batters he faced. It was a different night. The pitcher who crumbled on Friday was not the same one who jogged to the mound on Saturday. One night’s bad performance did not carry into the next. Neris was resilient. He was more than just a quote.
“I don’t think we were worried about him,” Knapp said. “But for him to go out and say that and then back it up was pretty cool. He doesn’t dwell on that one bad outing. He’s confident in his ability to go out and do it the next night. That’s what makes him so good in that spot.”