Here’s something that might blow your mind: Hector Neris is the Phillies’ longest-tenured player.
It’s true. With the offseason departure of second baseman Cesar Hernandez, nobody has been on the Phillies’ roster longer than Neris, who debuted late in the 2014 season. And as a savvy veteran who was a few days late to training camp after clearing Major League Baseball’s COVID-19 protocols last week, Neris thinks he has come up with a way to prepare for the unprecedented brevity of this 60-game season.
He's going to pretend that it's winter ball.
After many of his half-dozen major-league seasons, Neris returned home to pitch for Toros del Este in the Dominican Winter League, which typically has a 64-game schedule.
“I know how it feels to play in a short season and what kind of mind you have to have in that moment,” Neris said Wednesday night, after facing four batters and recording three outs in a scoreless inning of the Phillies’ intrasquad scrimmage, his first game action since reporting to camp. “Everything is today. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Just try to win today. Because the more games you win, you might be in [the playoffs].”
Neris cut back his winter-ball workload as his role in the Phillies’ bullpen grew over the years. But he made 18 appearances (21 innings) for Toros in the 2015-16 offseason and 20 appearances (18 innings) in 2014-15, his last two full seasons of winter ball.
Given the Phillies’ lack of proven right-handed arms in the bullpen and Neris’ track record, they figure to lean heavily on him. The 31-year-old was one of the few relievers who stayed healthy throughout last season. He made 68 appearances, averaged 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings, recorded a 2.93 ERA, and went 28-for-34 in save opportunities.
Neris said he didn’t test positive for COVID-19 and didn’t have any symptoms. He wasn’t specific about why he had to wait in Florida before being cleared to report to camp, although it’s possible he was exposed to someone who had the virus. The Phillies had an outbreak last month at their spring-training facility in Clearwater, Fla.
Regardless, Neris is here now and expected to reprise his closer role for new manager Joe Girardi, who doesn't have any concern that Neris will be ready for the season opener on July 24.
“I think he is,” Girardi said. “He’s got a couple more appearances, and we’ll make an evaluation, but I feel good about him being on track.”
Said Neris: “My body’s in shape, my arm. If you looked today, I looked comfortable on the mound, and my body and my arm are ready for the season.”
After serving as a designated hitter in back-to-back scrimmages and swinging the bat well, Scott Kingery could get his first action at second base on Thursday night. Kingery missed the first week of camp after a month-long bout with COVID-19.
“If he doesn’t feel that his legs, the lungs, are under him enough, then we’ll DH him again,” Girardi said. “But each day he’s been feeling better.”
Asked whether he expects Kingery to be ready for opening night, Girardi said, “Yes, absolutely.”