PORT CHARLOTTE — So many yesterdays ago, it seemed that Carlos Hernandez owned tomorrow.
He was young and strong and gifted, and the baseball flew out of his left hand as fast as a promise. Hernandez would throw a blistering fastball, and just as swiftly, those standing around him would throw their compliments. He was 21, and he was going to be a star.
These days, Hernandez is older, and his resume says less about his career than the scars on his shoulder. He is just shy of his 29th birthday, and he has not thrown a pitch in the major leagues since he was 24. It has been a long time since anyone called him a phenom.
On the other hand, the pain is gone, the pop is back and the possibilities are intriguing.
And with every pitch Hernandez throws, members of the Rays staff look at each other and say … "maybe."
Yes, his is a familiar baseball story. Spring training camps have always been stuffed with former high-end prospects who are trying to reclaim what injury has taken from them. And yes, most of them might as well be chasing shadows. Eventually, age and odds catch up to most comeback stories.
Still, there is something about Hernandez that makes it hard to look away. After years of pain and doubts, after times when he thought of quitting the game, the old smoothness is back. Suddenly, the notion of Hernandez as the Rays' fifth starter doesn't seem like such a long shot.
"If I can stay healthy," Hernandez says simply, "I can pitch anywhere."
Granted, the race for the Rays' lone opening in the rotation is a crowded one. There is Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann and Mitch Talbot. Eventually, David Price and Wade Davis may stake a claim. But, yes, manager Joe Maddon will tell you, Hernandez has a legitimate shot.
"His intensity jumps off the page," Maddon said. "I like his focus. I like his stuff."
And, yeah, if you want to know, Maddon likes his backstory. How could you not?
There was a time, back when he was with the Astros, Hernandez looked as if he was going to be a big deal. He was a power left-hander with a good curveball and an ability to throw strikes.
"At the time, we had Roy Oswalt and Tim Redding," said the Rays' Morgan Ensberg, who was with the Astros at the time. "And it was purely a matter of opinion as to which of them was better."
In his first game, back in 2001, Hernandez threw seven shutout innings in his debut. In his second game, he threw six shutout innings. The buzz was building.
"We certainly had high expectations," said Gerry Hunsicker, the Rays' senior vice president for baseball operations who was the Astros' general manager at the time. "He had the whole package. He was in the upper echelon of some very elite company."
Then came the shoulder problems. Hernandez jammed his left shoulder while diving back into second while running the bases in 2001. He had the first of his three surgeries after the next season. Since then, he has appeared in only nine major-league games, all in 2004.
"I thought about quitting," he said. "I'm not going to lie to you. There were times when I thought 'This isn't working' or 'This isn't going to happen.' I thought about going back to school. Maybe I could be a lawyer. What is the word? Injustice. I have never liked injustice.
"But there was something inside that wouldn't let me quit. My family and friends told me I had to keep trying."
And so he tried, although the pain was like an ice pick in his shoulder. Doctors told him it was scar tissue, that he just had to pitch through it.
But it wasn't scar tissue. He couldn't lift his arm properly, and his delivery turned choppy. He struggled to throw 75 mph.
"When I was 21 years old, I probably thought so," said Hernandez, who says his shoulder was finally fixed with his last surgery back in '06.
"But as the years pass, it's just part of life. It was just something that happened, you know? It's past me now. This is a new beginning."
Who knows what Hernandez might have become? Who knows how much of that he can recapture? For now, he has reached his first goal: He is back in baseball. His next goal? He wants to make the major leagues.
So far, he has been crisp enough to raise an eyebrow: two games, no runs. He hit 90 on the radar gun the other day. That's plenty.
"He's interesting," said Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, who was the Astros' Triple-A pitching coach when Hernandez was with the organization. "The first day we threw here, I was shocked. His arm action was so much better than it had been.
"Look back at last year's spring training. Maybe Carlos becomes this year's J.P. Howell."
Perhaps. It is early, and the Rays need to see what Hernandez can do with longer stints. The other candidates for the job have thrown well, too.
After years of struggling to throw, after fighting the aches and the questions, Hernandez has a chance.
For now, that's enough.