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May 11, 2012 at 11:02 PM

Hernandez' command key to Sea Dogs win

Chris Hernandez (Kelly O'Connor)
TRENTON, N.J. -- Portland left-hander Chris Hernandez relied on sharp command of his wide array of pitches to cruise to his second win of the season in Portland’s 4-2 win over Trenton (NYY).

“I felt in command of all my pitches and (was) down with all my pitches,” Hernandez said. “I was able to work both sides of the plate and it showed. It paid off for me well. When I have nights like that, it helps you out because you can throw any pitch in any count and know that it’s going to be a quality pitch. “

Hernandez cruised through 6.2 innings, but ran into trouble before he could get out of the seventh. After coaxing a 4-6-3 double play ball from centerfielder Melky Mesa, Hernandez allowed a bloop to third baseman Kevin Mahoney and a blast to catcher Jose Gil to cut Portland’s 4-0 lead in half. The next batter, Jose Toussen, lined a double down the left field line to chase Hernandez, but Aaron Kurcz got out of the jam and closed the book on Hernandez one batter later. Kurcz picked up the save, striking out five in 2.1 scoreless innings.

Before that, Hernandez manipulated his pitches and lived on the black. He allowed a pair of earned runs on seven hits in 6.2 innings with a walk and two strikeouts. He finished the evening with 57 of his 85 pitches going for strikes, including first-pitch strikes to 17 of 26 batters.

Hernandez isn’t the hardest thrower—he topped out at 88 mph with his four-seam fastball, which he featured primarily along with his two-seam fastball, which was in the mid-80s. But it’s the mix of Hernandez pitches that makes him so effective.

Hernandez said that on top of the four- and two-seam fastballs, he also threw a one-seam fastball that runs down and away, a cutter that runs outside to left-handers, a changeup and an 11-to-5 curveball.
He used the low-80s changeup as a “show me” pitch Friday, and pitching coach Bob Kipper said he was encouraged by Hernandez’ persistence with his curveball throughout the outing.

“He was not in the zone with it, but he looked for opportunities to steal strikes with it in his last couple innings, and he did an effective job doing just that,” Kipper said. “It’s about mix with him, and he understands that, accepts that, and he competes with it.” Kipper said Hernandez’ strength is that he’s so comfortable with his offerings. “He understands that his game is about the ability to command the baseball and to introduce and maintain a four-pitch mix throughout the ballgame. He does a wonderful job of moving the ball in and out, adding and subtracting, and hitters, as a result are usually pretty uncomfortable.”

Trenton hitters were anything but comfortable against Hernandez, who mowed through their lineup Friday. He threw just 12 pitches in each of the first two frames, facing the minimum in part thanks to a double-play ball to end the first. Hernandez worked around a two-out single in the third, and after three, had thrown just 37 pitches. He threw eight more pitches in the fourth, and returned to the mound in the fifth with a 4-0 lead.

In that inning, Hernandez was the beneficiary of a widening strike zone—the result of his pinpoint control to that point—and worked back from a 3-0 count with two outs to coax a pop-up to end the frame. After the game, he said he didn't consciously try to take advantage of the wider strike zone, but admitted that it helped a lot.

The wide strike-zone continued to work in his favor in the sixth, when Hernandez lived on the  black and got shortstop Addison Marusek to look at strike three on an outside fastball. Hernandez continued to get the benefit of the doubt on the outside edge, and collected his second strikeout of the day on an inside fastball to first baseman Luke Murton.

In the seventh, it looked like Hernandez would continue to cruise, but as he passed the 80-pitch mark, Trenton  got to him. Kipper said he didn’t see anything different in Hernandez in the seventh, and the left-hander from Miami said he’s not going to let one pitch ruin what was otherwise a sterling performance.

“I threw a cutter in and it kind of spun on me, and the guy looked like he was hunting it,” Hernandez said. “He put a good swing on it and hit it out of the park. It’s something you don’t want, but it’s part of the game. It happens. One pitch doesn’t really determine anything for me.” That mantra has carried throughout Hernandez’ professional career. “I try and stay confident in my stuff,” he said. “If it got me this far, I’m not going to change until I’m proven that I need to change. So far, I have confidence in all my stuff…and I’m going to keep doing it until somebody proves me wrong.” 

Jon Meoli is a Senior Columnist for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonMeoli