Saturday, December 16, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays need Roberto Hernandez

ST. PETERSBURG

For some, the temptation will be to call for the head of Roberto Hernandez, who has lost another baseball game. Darn him.

He has lost four of his past five. He is 4-9 overall. He gives up too many hits. He gives up too many home runs. He is neither a rising star nor a kid with a claim on tomorrow, and so he seems like the odd fit of the Rays' rotation.

Understand, then, if some fans have seen enough of him. Understand when they shake their heads, when they say they would just as soon take their chances with another phenom straight from the minors.

Except for this:

Hernandez has never been more important to the Rays' pitching rotation.

That says some good things about Hernandez, and it says some bad things about the rotation, but right now, the Rays need Hernandez.

Their No. 1 pitcher, David Price, has an injured arm. Their No. 2 pitcher, Alex Cobb, is recovering from being hit in the head by a batted ball. Their No. 3 and No. 4 pitchers, Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson, seem to run into trouble around the fifth or sixth inning. Chris Archer has been inconsistent.

It adds up to a scuffling rotation that doesn't last long enough in games and therefore overtaxes the bullpen and therefore makes it difficult for this team to go on a long winning streak.

After that, there is Hernandez, the hard-luck pitcher of the staff.

Take Wednesday's 3-0 loss to Toronto. To win this game, Hernandez was going to have to hold the Blue Jays to negative runs. He went into the ninth having given up only two runs, and still he had no shot. That's largely because the Blue Jays' R.A. Dickey left the Rays' hitters looking like someone trying to hit a butterfly with a boat paddle.

Hernandez kept his team close. He gave it a chance. Ask yourself: What more was Hernandez supposed to do?

"Sometimes you have to look beneath the surface," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "Roberto was fantastic. That was probably his best game all year. One walk, seven punchouts, the ball was alive.

"The sinker was good, the slider was good. We just got outpitched today."

Hernandez allowed a two-out run in the fourth. He gave up a solo home run in the sixth. In the ninth, on his 118th pitch, he gave up another. Most days that's good enough. Most days the Rays' offense will get more than zero runs.

"He pitched great," said pitching coach Jim Hickey. "Are you kidding me? He gave up two runs going into the ninth to an offense as potent as that one.

"If we could do that every day, we'd be in first place by 10 games. I'm not sure if we played 12 innings if R.A. Dickey would have given up anything."

Bad luck? Yeah, there has been some of that. Wednesday, Hernandez got 11 ground balls out of the Blue Jay hitters, and it didn't matter. In his previous start, he got 17 grounders out of the Yankees, but six went for hits.

It is nothing new to see pitchers with poor run support around here. James Shields suffered through it for years. Price, too. But this is a different Rays offense, isn't it? There aren't supposed to be many days such as Wednesday.

No, it isn't all rotten fate with Hernandez. He has given up 15 home runs this year. He has given up 42 hits in his past 33 innings. That's not good.

But Maddon sees an improvement.

"I think he's pitching well," Maddon said. "I think he's getting better. If you look at history, that (Jays) lineup had been kind of red hot against him (a combined .364 average), and he put them down pretty well.

"Even at the beginning of the year, as the fifth starter, we thought he could grow and be pretty solid. But with the injuries, his role has shifted to a more meaty role."

Eventually, Price will be back, and Cobb, and there will be fresh challenges to Hernandez's place in the rotation. That won't go away until winning comes more often. He has to keep the ball in the park and runners off the bases.

"I feel very, very good," Hernandez said. "I'm pitching more and more innings. I'm feeling more comfortable. I want to win. Everyone knows that, but I can't control that."

For now, however, Hernandez is in no danger of losing his spot.

"I would say you could pencil him in," Hickey said, "but let's face it. These days, we're writing his name in ink."

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