It dropped below the strike zone. Judge swung and missed.
It was a big moment in the Phillies’ 5-4 victory over the Yankees. Big because Judge represented the go-ahead run and the strikeout ended the inning to preserve a one-run lead. Big because it held up a solid night of pitching from right-hander Zach Eflin and the Phillies’ beleaguered bullpen. Big because the Phillies split a four-game home-and-home series against the Yankees, who are arguably the best team in the American League. Big because it moves the Phillies within a game of .500 (3-4) as they open a four-game series Friday night against the Braves.
“Don’t give in,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi told catcher J.T. Realmuto as Neris entered from the bullpen. “If we get in a bad situation, never give in.”
The Yankees had a runner on second with two outs when Yankees manager Aaron Boone sent Judge to pinch-hit for Brett Gardner. Moments later, Girardi emerged from the Phillies’ dugout to summon Neris to replace left-hander José Álvarez. Girardi used Neris for a one-pitch, one-out save in Game 1 of Wednesday’s doubleheader. Now he needed Neris to record a four-out save against one of the best lineups in baseball.
“Well, you know how dangerous he is,” Girardi said about Judge. “That’s a dangerous at-bat for any pitcher, because if you make a mistake, he can hit it out of any ballpark anywhere. And Héctor was fantastic.”
Realmuto knows that the Yankees are a well-educated team. They certainly know that Neris is a two-pitch pitcher who relies heavily on his splitter. But Realmuto figured that Judge would be looking to crush a first-pitch splitter because Neris started 66.7 percent of his at-bats last season with one. Realmuto called for a fastball instead. Judge took the pitch down the middle for a strike.
Judge fouled off a 0-1 fastball. He just missed.
“He had a pretty good swing on the second fastball that was up in the zone,” Girardi said. “And then he threw him some good splits after that. Got back to where he belonged.”
DJ LeMahieu and Mike Tauchman each had a two-out single in the ninth. Luke Voit then crushed a 1-0 fastball to the warning track in right-center field. The ball left his bat at 104.6 mph with a .630 expected batting average, according to Statcast. But Roman Quinn settled underneath and caught it.
“I saw the ball fly and I was like, 'Mmmm,'” Neris said. “I know [Voit] was frustrated because he wanted to hit the home run, but sorry. Maybe next time, I don’t know.”
Realmuto did not miss his pitch in the first inning. He hit a three-run home run to hand the Phillies a 3-0 lead. For the second time this season, Bryce Harper showed his support for his friend and favorite player. After Realmuto crossed home plate, Harper gestured the signing of a check. Harper made the same gesture after Realmuto -- who can become a free agent after the season -- homered on July 25.
Harper wants the Phillies to “Sign J.T.!” -- just like the fans who have been shouting it behind Ashburn Alley since Opening Day.
Phil Gosselin’s two-out, two-run double to left-center field in the third extended the Phillies’ lead to 5-2. It was Gosselin’s fourth extra-base hit in 10 at-bats this season. He had three extra-base hits in 65 at-bats last year.
Eflin’s 2020 debut got pushed back nine days because of a week’s worth of postponements related to the Marlins’ COVID-19 outbreak. He allowed four hits, two unearned runs and one walk in four innings. He struck out five. He threw 77 pitches. Forty-nine were sinkers, his highest percentage of sinkers (63.6 percent) in a start in his career.
Eflin loved it.
“I’m at my best when I’m at the bottom of the zone,” Eflin said. “I’m forcing early contact. I’m getting weak contact. It’s really refreshing to kind of go back to square one and see how good square one can be.”
A bullpen that entered the game with an MLB-worst 9.18 ERA (17 earned runs in 16 2/3 innings) allowed two runs in five innings. Neris’ strikeout against Judge was the top moment of the night.
“All hitters, as great as they can be, if you make your pitches, you have a chance,” Girardi said. “If you don’t make your pitches, that’s when they make you pay. I thought Héctor and J.T. had a great plan, and they executed it.”