Hector Neris spread his index finger a few inches from his thumb on Saturday, just a few minutes after he earned the first two-inning save of his career.
That is how much he expected to return for the final three outs, after pitching the eighth inning of a 2-1 win over the Rockies, he said.
It was an unlikely situation for Neris, who was roughed up the last time the Phillies tried to pitch him more than one inning. But he needed just 11 pitches to retire three batters in the eighth inning. He was excellent, manager Gabe Kapler said. So the ninth inning was his, too.
“I had a little bit in my mind that I would be going back out,” Neris said. “But he told me, and I was like, ‘OK. I’ll go.’ ”
Neris has not allowed an earned run in eight innings, since surrendering a two-run homer on April 25 in a loss to Miami. The Phillies tried to push him for a second inning that night, but the tactic failed. That’s baseball, Neris said. He moved on.
“When he looks as good as he did, and we had to lock down that win -- we’re up by a run, there’s no margin for error -- and he’s the best option, sometimes you’ve got to push,” Kapler said. “I think that’s what the game told us to do in that situation. He responded, and again, we had a plan in place if he wasn’t at his best in his second inning of work.”
Neris was at his best on Saturday because of his splitter, which he threw for 18 of his 21 pitches. The pitch proved unhittable, even though it was thrown almost exclusively.
“When we see the splitter biting from the dugout – and when I say ‘biting,’ it doesn’t tumble and roll, but it takes a sharp downward action and guys are fouling the ball straight into the dirt or they’re swinging and missing – we know we have it,” Kapler said. “And it’s somewhere in the middle of the plate. It doesn’t have to be on the corners. It just kind of starts in the middle of the plate and shoots straight down. When we see that from the dugout, we know we have a dominant force.”
The Phillies bullpen has been thinned by injuries. Victor Arano is on the injured list, and Tommy Hunter and David Robertson are not expected back until the beginning of June at the earliest. Those absences make Neris even more important, as he moves up Kapler’s pecking order for high-leverage situations.
Saturday was his 19th outing of the season, 16 of which have been scoreless. Neris responded to his worst night of the season with a solid stretch of reliability. He might not have been fully expecting a second inning of work on Saturday, but he was ready.
“Don’t think too much,” Neris said. “Just throw the ball, throw a strike, and try to get out as soon as I can.”