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Cubs: How a card game with Joe Girardi helped Héctor Neris reach another level as MLB reliever

1 month agoAndy Martinez

Joe Girardi was trying to find a way to demonstrate a lesson to his trusted reliever.

It was 2020, and Héctor Neris had started off slow in the shortened season with the Phillies. Girardi could sense he was trying to overpower hitters, becoming predictable.

“In that moment, I wasn’t really observing things too well on the mound,” Neris said.

The former World Series-winning manager tried to find a way to convey that without relating it too closely to baseball. So, he turned to a modified version of the card game Cassino.

The object of the game is for a player to match their hand of cards to a set pile of cards in the middle, strategically building combinations that equate to points in an effort to reach a score of 21. It requires plenty of thinking and creativity.

“This game is about strategy,” Neris said. “If I have 19, it doesn’t mean I’m going to win because you have 10 or 8.”

Girardi and Neris had to be innovative near the end of games to land on 21 points exactly.

“So, if it was 18 to 18, one of us has got to sandbag to get to 21, because if you go over, you go back to where you were,” Girardi said on the Cubs Weekly Podcast. “And there were games that would take 4 or 5 hours to play.”

It became a daily tradition. Neris would arrive at the park, get dressed and go through his normal pregame routine. Then, he’d walk into Girardi’s office where his manager was ready with a deck of cards to play the game.

As they played, the lesson began to hammer home for Neris: you can’t be predictable —whether it’s on the mound against big-league hitters or playing Cassino against your manager.

“So, it was trying to teach him that there’s got to be a little finesse in your game sometimes and it can’t be just go hard, hard, hard all the time,” Girardi said. “And he was a little hesitant at the beginning to play the game and trying to understand, but then he fell in love with it.”

Inconsistency had defined him early in his career. He had served as the Phillies closer during parts of 2017 to 2019 and entered 2020 as the closer. But early in the shortened season, the results led to a change in the role for Girardi, with Neris pivoting off closing duties.

Hence, Girardi turned to the game to try and reinvigorate his reliever.  

The results worked. After posting an 11.12 ERA with 3 blown saves in his first 8 appearances in 2020, Neris had a 2.25 ERA with 3 saves in 3 chances and 3 holds over his final 16 appearances. Neris pitched to a 3.63 ERA in 2021 with the Phillies and that led him to signing a two-year, $17 million contract with the Astros.

“He used that as a small anecdote,” Neris said. “It worked really well for me, and I thank him for that. I always remember that.”

In 2022 with Houston, he encountered some struggles in the middle of the season. Girardi called Neris’ then-manager Dusty Baker.

“Dusty came up to me and said, ‘Girardi told me to remind you about the game,’” Neris said.

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Again, things clicked.

Neris turned into a key fixture in Houston’s reliever corps, helping lead them to a World Series title that season and then turning in a sparkling 1.71 ERA in 2023 enroute to the ALCS, becoming one of the best relievers in baseball.

It’s what made him such a sought-after reliever by the Cubs this offseason.

Earlier this week, Neris remembered the game and the message behind it. He grabbed some of the other young relievers and told him the message of the game: you must have some subtlety in your game and not be too predictable on the mound.

“At the end it was about getting me to understand that a lot of times pitching, I can’t be so obvious with my opponent,” Neris said. “I can’t do the same thing. Like in Cassino, I can’t do the same thing because he could be prepared and even though I have 19, I need to win with an ace.”

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