Five months earlier and Hector Neris would have crumbled. He would have given up another home run to the next batter. And the next. But not this Hector Neris. This pitcher was different.
Neris underwent a transformation this past season, from a reliever who suffered the worst meltdown of his career to one who guided himself through adversity. The Phillies have money to burn this offseason, and the bullpen is a logical place to spend. But Neris proved over the second half that the closer's role should be his in 2018.
Neris converted his final 20 save opportunities and registered a 2.48 ERA after the all-star break. He struck out 44 in his last 36 innings, finding confidence again in his devastating splitter. Neris — armed with a 94-mph fastball and a diving splitter — looked like a closer.
"I have to teach myself to be better because the hitter is coming to kill me. So I am going to kill the hitter," Neris said, erasing any doubt that he does not have the right mind-set for the ninth inning.
Free agency began at 5 p.m. Monday, and the Phillies have just one commitment — Odubel Herrera's $3 million — on the books for 2018. Neris, like most of the other remaining players, will make at or near the league minimum. He is 28 and will not be a free agent until after the 2021 season.
President Andy MacPhail said the Phillies would enter next season with a "relatively low payroll." But that does not mean the team will not spend. The Phillies will likely add at least two starters, bolster the bench, and certainly add arms for the bullpen.
The Phillies spent nearly $16 million there last season on Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek. Benoit flamed out in the ninth inning, and Neshek was an all-star but preferred pitching in the seventh. The market this winter is not flush with closers. Wade Davis of the Cubs and Fernando Rodney, who saved 39 games for the Diamondbacks but will turn 41 in March, are the biggest names. Outbidding another team for a closer seems unnecessary when Neris can fill the role for little cost.
That money would be better spent on the seventh and eighth innings to build a bridge to Neris. Adam Morgan, Luis Garcia, and Edubray Ramos were strong in the second half and seemed to form the foundation of a solid bullpen. The Phillies could augment that unit through free agency. Steve Cishek, Brandon Morrow, and Matt Albers are among the top options. The Phillies had the 14th-best bullpen ERA this season after finishing 2016 with the third worst. More improvement could come in 2018.
"There's a lot of good guys there," Neris said of his supporting cast. "It's good for next year."
Neris emerged in 2016 behind a splitter that was so dominant that former manager Pete Mackanin labeled it "invisible." But Neris shied away from the pitch to start 2017. His performance suffered. Neris threw the splitter on just 44.6 percent of his pitches during the first month of the season. And the pitch was hammered whenever he threw it. Batters slugged a ridiculous .522 in April against the splitter.
Neris said he was uncomfortable with the pitch, pushing himself to rely heavily on his fastball. The coaching staff demanded that he return to the splitter, and Neris listened. He threw the pitch with conviction in May and began to build the foundation of a strong second half. Opponents batted just .156 after July 1 with a .234 slugging percentage against Neris' splitter. He allowed six homers in the season's final four months. Only one came against the splitter.
Neris' growth as a closer was never more evident than it was on Sept. 18, when he entered the ninth inning with a two-run lead against the Dodgers, the team that had rocked Neris in April with a nightmarish sequence of back-to-back-to-back homers.
So when Curtis Granderson, the second batter Neris faced in that September game, homered to right field, it was pretty easy to have flashbacks to Dodger Stadium. But this was a different Neris. He whiffed the next two batters, Corey Seager and Yasmani Grandal, to escape. Neris threw nine pitches to record the two outs, and all nine were splitters. There was no secret to what was coming, but perhaps the pitch once again looked "invisible."
There was no nightmare, and the game was over. Another save was locked down, and Neris' case for 2018 was made stronger.