Fernandez thumbs ride to hero's role Roberts' hand injury puts him into lineup, gives chance to hit HR

October 16, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Tony Fernandez figured to watch most, if not all, of Game 6 in the American League Championship Series from the discomfort of the visitors' dugout at Camden Yards. Perhaps he'd be a late-inning replacement for the Cleveland Indians, perhaps just a cheerleader.

It was then that fate -- in this case, the right hand of Bip Roberts -- got in the way.

"It was divine intervention," said Roberts, who was injured when he took a line drive off his thumb while fielding ground balls during batting practice.

Who hit the line drive? Fernandez.

Fernandez, who replaced Roberts in the starting lineup, hit the 11th-inning home run off Orioles relief pitcher Armando Benitez to break up a scoreless tie, rocketing the Indians to a 1-0 victory and their second trip to the World Series in the past three years.

Fernandez, a switch-hitter, had hardly batted against right-handers this season. He had not hit a home run left-handed, and had never hit a home run in 37 previous postseason games. So, as he walked up to home to face Benitez, he had a little heart-to-heart with the world's most powerful batting coach.

"I just asked God to guide the ball," Fernandez said in the raucous clubhouse afterward. "I needed help."

It was another odd twist that wound up going Cleveland's way. Roberts was injured on a freak play that began with Indians coach Jeff Newman hitting a harmless ground ball toward Roberts almost simultaneously as Fernandez was taking a swing in the batting cage. Roberts tried to field both balls.

"I knew I was in trouble," said Roberts, who had been scheduled to play second and hit leadoff. "I went to get cortisone, but I couldn't swing the bat. I was down in the dumps, and then I saw David Justice. He told me a story about the same thing happening to him."

Justice told Roberts a story about how, during the 1995 National League Championship Series between the Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds, Justice was hit on the leg before Game 4. He was scratched from the Atlanta lineup, and former Oriole Mike Devereaux hit a three-run home run.

The Braves went to the World Series -- against the Indians -- as Devereaux was named the MVP of the NLCS.

Now, the Indians are going to the World Series beginning Saturday in Miami against the Florida Marlins.

The home run was Fernandez's second hit in five at-bats last night, and his fifth in 14 for the ALCS. Right before he went up to face Benitez, Fernandez said, he knew the ball was going to reach the right-field bleachers.

"I had hit the ball well to left earlier," said Fernandez, "but the wind blew it back in."

As he ran around the bases, Fernandez pumped his right fist in the air. As he reached the dugout, one of the first players to greet him was Roberts. His right hand taped, his injury-induced depression had ended. "I told him I loved him," said Roberts.

It was a fitting way for Fernandez to continue what has been one of his more productive seasons since he left the Toronto Blue Jays after the 1990 season. The 11 home runs he hit during the regular season -- all right-handed -- equaled a career-high set in 1989. His .286 average was his highest since 1988.

"He's a total professional. He comes to the ballpark every day ready to play," said catcher Sandy Alomar. "He isn't a superstar, but he goes about his business in a way that's great to have on your team."

But there was a bit of frustration festering below the surface. Fernandez had been disappointed when he got to the ballpark yesterday and saw that he wasn't in the starting lineup. He had been the Indians' regular second baseman until Roberts arrived in a trade from the Kansas City Royals Aug. 31. "You always want to play," said Fernandez.

In retrospect, the best cut he might have had last night was the line drive in batting practice.

It put him in the lineup.

He put the Indians in the World Series.

Pub Date: 10/16/97

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