MIAMI — If Héctor Neris got misty-eyed in the bullpen last Sunday, his teammates would’ve understood. After 11 years with the Phillies, the last seven in the majors as a mainstay reliever, he may have sat through his last home game at Citizens Bank Park.
But there wasn’t time for sentimentality. The Phillies were dealing with here-and-now issues in a playoff race, and few players felt the urgency of the moment more acutely than Neris.
Neris, 32, ranks 57th among active pitchers with 404 career appearances. But nobody has pitched in more games without reaching the postseason, a streak that will continue with the Phillies falling short once again.
“I just wanted to compete because it was a situation where we were trying to make the playoffs,” Neris said Friday before the Phillies began a season-ending series here against the Miami Marlins. “I didn’t want to think about anything [else]. Especially the last week in Philly, I knew it would make me feel sad, so I didn’t want to concentrate on that.”
Besides, Neris is known within the clubhouse for being happy-go-lucky, and that’s how he intends to stay as he dives into the uncertainty of free agency. Maybe he will re-sign with the only team he has known since he signed for $17,000 in 2010. Or maybe he will take his wicked splitter somewhere else. Regardless, he will leave a mark as one of the better, if somewhat underappreciated relievers in Phillies history.
Consider this: Neris is seventh on the franchise’s all-time list for games pitched behind Robin Roberts (529), Steve Carlton (499), Ryan Madson (491), Tug McGraw (463), Chris Short (459), and Ron Reed (458). He’s fourth in strikeout rate (30.3%) and has 517 career strikeouts, two shy of tying Reed for the most ever by a Phillies reliever, a mark that he said would be “one of the most important things in my career.”
“I would love for him to get that record,” manager Joe Girardi said. “He’s meant a lot to us this year. I’m not going to hold him back. If he’s available, he’s pitching.”
To some Phillies fans, Neris’ legacy will be the spectacular ways in which he tended to blow saves. That would be unfortunate. Because amid the back-to-back-to-back home runs in 2017 at Dodger Stadium, or the two-strike walk-off single by the Braves’ Brian McCann in 2019, or Pablo Sandoval’s pinch-hit two-run shot this year in Atlanta, Neris’ tenure with the Phillies has been marked most by his resilience.
In 2018, Neris fumbled the closer role and even got demoted to triple A, but returned in August and posted a 2.04 ERA and a 35-to-3 strikeouts-to-walks ratio in 17 2/3 innings. He stumbled again last year, then had a 2.25 ERA, 20 strikeouts, and eight walks in 16 innings down the stretch.
It was the same story this season after being removed from the closer role in June.
“I just stay positive,” Neris said. “It doesn’t matter the result. In baseball, you don’t have a great night every time. You just have to control that you work hard, stay positive, keep competing. Because if you trust yourself, you can get through a bad moment out there.”
It’s clear, at least to the Phillies, that Neris is best suited in a setup role. Neris said he won’t prioritize an opportunity to close games again as he gauges interest from teams this winter. It stands to reason, though, that the best offers may come from teams that view him as a closer.
“I would be open for every role. It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I want everyone to know I’m available for pitching. I like to have the ball in my hand. It doesn’t matter if it’s the ninth or the seventh or the eighth inning.”
That much is inarguable. Since the start of the 2016 season, Neris has appeared in 371 games, more than only lefthander Brad Hand. He was also the Phillies’ most reliable reliever down the stretch. Since July 5, he has a 2.18 ERA and is second among all relievers in innings (41 1/3).
Neris’ last outing at home this season turned out to be among his most memorable. He entered a one-run game in the seventh inning Sept. 24 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, faced nine batters, recorded five outs, and threw 41 pitches, his highest total since Aug. 27, 2015. With the bases loaded in the eighth, after talking Girardi into leaving him in, he fielded a tapper back to the mound, ran to first base, and stomped on the bag with both feet.
“You think about where he was 3 1/2 months ago and how he’s bounced back and how important he has been to our wins, I have the utmost respect for Héctor,” Girardi said. “He’s a guy that’s just really tough. He’s durable. He’s a warrior to me.”
Those qualities should serve Neris well in free agency. But few relievers signed multiyear deals last year, and it’s unclear where Neris, who made $5 million this season, will stack up in a market that will include closers Raisel Iglesias, Kenley Jansen, and possibly Craig Kimbrel.
“If anything happens, I’d be open all the time to stay,” Neris said. “It’s been a challenge all these years to prove to the team and to prove to myself that I can be here a long time and compete and try to help the team win. I never see myself out of this team because I want to stay here. But it’s something I don’t have control over.”