Héctor Neris was one strike from giving the Phillies their longest winning streak in nearly three years. Then he threw one of the worst pitches of his career.
And that wasn’t even the low point of the Phillies’ Saturday night in Atlanta.
First, they fumbled a two-run lead in the ninth inning. Then, they coughed up a one-run edge in the 11th and a three-run margin in the 12th. And when the merry-go-round stopped after a wild game that lasted for nearly five hours, the Phillies bowed to the Braves, 8-7, in a 12-inning crusher that evened the three-game series.
“It’s a tough loss,” manager Joe Girardi said, sounding like a punch-drunk boxer after a 12-round fight.
At least the Phillies have Aaron Nola slated to pitch the finale on Sunday Night Baseball.
The Phillies took a 7-4 lead when Braves reliever Jacob Webb airmailed a throw to home plate on Bryce Harper’s bases-loaded comebacker to the mound and J.T. Realmuto added an RBI single. But relievers Enyel De Los Santos and Matt Moore — unlikely heroes of a victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at home last week — gave it away in the bottom of the 12th.
De Los Santos gave up a game-tying, three-run double to William Contreras. Moore, a starting pitcher until last week, came on and gave up a walk-off single to right field by Ehire Adrianza.
Gone was the Phillies’ five-game winning streak. They haven’t won six in a row since June 30-July 7, 2018.
“[De Los Santos] got ahead of the first hitter and wasn’t able to put him away,” Girardi said. “Just missed some spots. It looked like he left a slider up to Contreras. It’s a learning curve for young players, and I’m sure he’ll learn from it and take some things from it and move on.”
It never would have come to that if Neris had made a better two-strike pitch with two out in the ninth inning.
Neris started fastball-mashing Pablo Sandoval with back-to-back splitters. Sandoval fouled off a fastball, and Neris decided to come back with another heater. But it was belt-high, and Sandoval crushed it to right field for his fourth pinch-hit homer of the season and second against the Phillies.
“I wanted that pitch up. I missed it. It was middle-middle,” Neris said. “He picked the right pitch. For me, wrong pitch. For him, it was the right pitch. It’s a pitch I want to just throw away, and if I miss, I go back to my strength [the splitter].”
Asked if he would throw the fastball again in that situation, Neris said, “Absolutely. I just have to make the pitch, make it better executed and see what happens. It’d be a 100 percent different situation.”
Neris has been mostly solid so far this season. He entered the game with a 1.88 ERA in 15 appearances and was 6-for-7 in save opportunities, including a 40-pitch, five-out save last week against the Brewers.
Even though the Phillies have closer alternatives with Sam Coonrod and lefty José Alvarado, Girardi said he intends to stick with Neris.
“Héctor’s done a good job for us,” Girardi said. “He’s pitched well for us.”
One pitch shifted the momentum of the game.
Two innings earlier, with the Phillies leading 3-1, the Braves faced the devastating possibility of losing star right fielder Ronald Acuña Jr., who walked off the field in agony in the seventh after Coonrod drilled him in the left hand with a 98-mph fastball. Coonrod tried to come inside with consecutive pitches, the latter clipping Acuña’s right pinky finger.
X-rays were negative, according to the Braves. Acuña appeared to escape with a bruise, and Georgians from Atlanta to Augusta breathed a sigh of relief. A long-term injury to Acuña would have shifted the balance of power in the National League East far more than losing a Mother’s Day weekend series to the Phillies.
The Phillies were on the ropes in the 10th inning, with the winning (ghost) runner on third base and one out. Girardi called for back-to-back intentional walks to load the bases and brought Bryce Harper in from right field to serve as a fifth infielder. After Alec Bohm made a strong throw to get a force at the plate, reliever Brandon Kintzler struck out Cristian Pache to extend the game.
Both teams scored a run in the 11th. Rookie infielder Nick Maton crushed a two-out double off the wall in right-center field to give the Phillies a 4-3 lead before Adrianza reached on a ground-ball single that shortstop Didi Gregorius threw wide of first base to tie it up, 4-4. It was Gregorius’ sixth error in 28 starts but his first in 10 games.
The late-game drama overshadowed another solid outing for Vince Velasquez, who is pitching like he knows this may be his last chance to hold down a spot in the Phillies’ starting rotation.
Making his fourth start in what was supposed to be a temp job while Moore was in COVID-19 protocol, Velasquez didn’t give up a hit until Ozzie Albies’ one-out triple in the fourth inning or a run until the sixth, when Freddie Freeman snapped a career-long 0-for-22 drought with a leadoff homer that made it 3-1.
But the most impressive moment for Velasquez came in the second inning. He walked Albies and Austin Riley, a bout of wildness that has mushroomed in so many past starts. But he recovered to strike out Dansby Swanson and Contreras and got Pache to line out.
Girardi hooked Velasquez with one out in the sixth inning rather than letting him face Albies a third time. Velasquez, who threw 90 pitches, bounced the ball on the mound, an outward sign that he wanted to keep going. Regardless, he has likely earned a chance to take his next turn in the rotation, a start-to-start proposition thus far.
“Vinny threw another good ballgame,” Girardi said. “I’m pleased with what Vinny’s doing, and he’ll continue to make starts.”
The Phillies led 2-0 after the first inning and 3-0 after the second against Braves starter Ian Anderson. Scorching-hot Jean Segura picked up three more hits, including a first-inning homer, and is 7-for-9 in two games since returning from 16 days on the injured list.
But Segura was long gone, removed as part of a seventh-inning double switch, before the game was decided — and in the most excruciating way possible for the Phillies.
“It’s a high-emotion game,” Neris said. “Somebody had to lose. Today it’s a Phillie loss. But I don’t think it’s going to affect our mentality. It’s just going to make it more strong to come back tomorrow and get a win.”