MILWAUKEE — Héctor Neris signed his first professional contract when he was 19, only to see Kansas City void it soon after because of inaccuracies with his paperwork. The moment was crushing enough for Neris — who had learned to play baseball just a year earlier — to quit the game until his mentor threatened to shoot him if he walked away from his dream.
Neris kept that dream alive a year later, but the $17,000 deal he signed in 2010 with the Phillies came with little guarantee. It was $12,000 more than the contract voided by Kansas City yet it wasn’t a small investment on the international market.
It was hard to imagine one year after he nearly quit that Neris would record 500 major league strikeouts, a milestone he reached Monday.
But his career — and this summer — has been defined by resilience. Neris kept his career churning, spent five years in the minors, and reached the majors nearly six years after a gun made him keep playing. Neris has been demoted to the minors, blown some crushing saves, and lost his closer’s role.
And he seems to claw back each time.
He’s the team’s longest tenured player and that $17,000 investment could help push the Phillies back to the postseason. He struck out three batters Monday in the seventh inning of a 12-0 win over Milwaukee to bring his career strikeout total to 501. Neris trails only Ron Reed (519) for strikeouts by a Phillies relief pitcher.
“It’s another great accomplishment for my career. It’s a special day,” Neris said.
For a relief pitcher, it’s hard to have a worse outing than what Neris did on July 4 when he allowed six runs and recorded just two outs. But that afternoon did not define his season. Neris has a 1.27 ERA in 28 outings since and Monday was his 10th straight scoreless outing. His season could have unraveled that day. Instead, he has elevated himself to be a key piece of the bullpen.
“I just feel like lately, his last eight, nine, 10 appearances, he’s been nasty,” Brad Miller said. “Everything. He’s throwing a ton of heaters with some life, up to 95, 96. He’s throwing obviously the split. He’s mixing in sliders. I feel like every time he’s come out of the pen he’s got it done. I don’t know what the numbers are, but just visually being there, it’s a great feeling with him on the bump for us.”
Joe Girardi said Neris recently made a minor adjustment with pitching coach Caleb Cotham, which Neris said aligned his delivery to improve the command of his fastball. A little tweak has been a big improvement.
Monday was Neris’ third straight game as the Phillies will lean heavily on him during the season’s final month. Neris said he’s ready.
“It’s been extremely impressive what he’s done,” Girardi said. “He had a month where just nothing went right for him. There was a ton of frustration. ... He’s been really good. I can’t say enough about what he’s done for us.”
Even Neris’ 500th strikeout needed resilience. An eventual blowout win was still a four-run game and Neris allowed a one-out double to Rowdy Tellez. Girardi had pulled Zack Wheeler at 99 pitches. Perhaps this was Milwaukee’s chance to jump on the bullpen.
But Neris settled himself and fanned Jackie Bradley for No. 500 and Daniel Vogelbach for No. 501. The rally was finished and Neris emphatically pumped his fist before leaving the mound. It was quite the journey for Neris to reach that milestone. So what will he do with the baseball?
“Save it, papi,” Neris said.
“I just come in every year and don’t have any frustration on my mind. Just help the team every year as much as I can. That’s the only thing I can control.”
J.T. Realmuto caught for a third straight game and will likely play first base on Tuesday against left-hander Eric Lauer. ... Aaron Nola will start for the Phillies. ... Girardi said Ranger Suarez remains on track to start Thursday against the Rockies after leaving Saturday night’s start with triceps tightness.