PORT CHARLOTTE — Rays catcher Chris Gimenez has called Roberto Hernandez "BoBo" for a decade, since he and the right-hander were Indians minor-leaguers.
Back then, Hernandez went by the name of Fausto Carmona, a false identity he used to make him a younger and more desirable prospect out of the Dominican Republic.
But even as Hernandez emerged as a Cy Young candidate in 2007 and an All-Star in 2010, Gimenez still used the affectionate nickname for his 6-foot-4, 230-pound teammate, who is sneaky funny but not so smooth on his feet.
"He's like Bobo the Clown," Gimenez said. "He's goofy. Now it turns out it works really well because his name wasn't really his name. It kind of fits."
The Rays hope that a fresh start for the former Fausto could make him a great fit, as Hernandez is a strong candidate for the fifth spot in the rotation. With his real name and age, 32 (three years older), finally revealed after a false identity arrest last January in the Dominican, Hernandez feels relieved. And Tampa Bay, which signed Hernandez to a one-year, $3.25 million deal (with $1.85 million in incentives), just wants him to be himself, the same sinkerballer and innings-eater that once made him a rising star as Fausto.
"He's even better than I remembered," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He's very strong, he's very big. … I think he's very motivated right now. He likes being here. It's been fun to watch."
Hernandez grew up working with cattle and crops on his parents' farm in Yamasa, D.R., an agricultural village north of Santo Domingo.
Figuring it would help his chances for a better life in baseball, he told the Indians he was 17 when he signed (instead of 20), using false paperwork. He wasn't the first, and won't be the last, player from the country to fib to fulfill his dreams; veteran reliever Joel Peralta says he wouldn't be here if he hadn't done so.
But having learned from his experience, Hernandez has made it his "project" in the past year to educate kids back in the Dominican Republic on not making the same mistake, according to Charisse Espinosa-Dash, one of his agents. Hernandez tells them there's no need to lie, just trust their talent, and passes out T-shirts with the message, "In Truth There is Triumph."
Ross Atkins, Cleveland's vice president of player development, said Hernandez handled his arrest — and ensuing three-week suspension — as well as anyone could. Indians teammates welcomed him back, jokingly presenting him with three birthday cakes for the years he missed. But Atkins said Hernandez had to "carry the burden" of the lie for a long time, a "very stressful situation."
"It was always looking over his shoulder, that one day this is going to come out in the open," Espinosa-Dash said. "He definitely feels the biggest relief he's ever had, putting him in a way better position to do good and prove himself."
Hernandez has had a tough time regaining the fantastic form he had in 2007, his first full-big league season.
A relative unknown, Hernandez rode his heavy sinker — "A bowling ball," as Gimenez calls it — to finish fourth in the American League Cy Young race, going 19-8 with a 3.06 ERA in 215 innings.
But as the league adjusted to Hernandez, he struggled to counter, resulting in inconsistencies, following a 2010 All-Star season with a 7-18 record since.
"He can be dominant. I've witnessed it personally," Gimenez said. "But I've also witnessed him getting lit up quickly, because he has to bring the ball up and over the plate because he can't control it. That's when he goes from being a sinkerball pitcher to, 'You've got to throw the kitchen sink at them,' and that's never a good feeling."
Hernandez, who has a 3.60 spring ERA as he competes with Jeff Niemann to be the No. 5 starter, has looked good. That includes Monday's start, his fourth outing, when he allowed three runs (two earned) over four innings. Pitching coach Jim Hickey has been impressed with Hernandez's size and stuff, including an "as advertised" sinker, a "really good changeup" and a solid slider.
"I feel very, very happy," Hernandez said. "I'm throwing strikes, keeping the ball down, ground ball. That's what I have to do."
Though Hernandez is extremely quiet by nature, he's fitting in well in the clubhouse, exuding a dry sense of humor. He laughs when dubbed "BoBo" by Gimenez, who still has a hard time not saying Fausto.
"I call him Bob now, too," Gimenez said, smiling. "Just because it's funny."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]