Hernandez turns tide for Yankees

October 11, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

CLEVELAND -- A year ago, when his younger half-brother, Livan Hernandez, was pitching for the Florida Marlins in the playoffs, Orlando Hernandez would drive to the offices of CNN's bureau in Havana, Cuba, and follow the games on a live feed.

A star pitcher himself for many years in Cuba, Orlando Hernandez had been banished from Cuban baseball for allegedly plotting to defect. His career was in tatters.

Two months after Livan was named Most Valuable Player of the Marlins' World Series triumph, Orlando Hernandez jumped on a raft and fled Cuba, leaving behind his wife and two young children.

And you wondered if he would feel pressure pitching for the Yankees in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series last night at Jacobs Field.

Yes, it was a huge game for the Yankees, who'd lost two straight games to the Indians to fall behind in the series and jeopardize their record-setting season.

But knowing what Hernandez had endured to reach the biggest game of his life, was there any doubt that he'd deliver?

With dark socks pulled up to his calves and a high leg kick and assortment of breaking pitches mindful of former All-Star Luis Tiant, Hernandez delivered seven masterful innings in a 4-0 Yankee victory that evened the ALCS at two games each.

"I know it was a must-win and I had a lot of pressure on me, but I had no fear," Hernandez said. "I have been through many difficult times in my life, on and off the field, and I knew I could handle this."

A loss would have left the Yankees in trouble, one defeat away from elimination, quite a development for a team that won 114 games during the regular season.

Now, with David Wells and David Cone set to start the next two games, the Yankees have a chance to regain control of the series.

Wells approached Torre before last night's game and offered to start, a gesture Torre appreciated but didn't take seriously.

"Even if I'd taken him seriously," Torre said later, "I'd be moving my Game 4 starter back [a day], and I wouldn't want to mess with his psyche like that."

Now Torre won't mess with Hernandez's psyche or his place in the rotation.

Hernandez outpitched Indians starter Doc Gooden, an ex-Yankee who badly wanted to beat the team that had let him walk away after last season.

Gooden labored through 4 2/3 innings, allowing three runs. Hernandez, who said before the game that he'd admired Gooden for years and even patterned his delivery after Gooden's, was much more effective.

"He was spectacular," Torre said. "After what he's been through, a playoff game was like a walk in the park. But it was big for us."

What was his biggest game before this? Who knows? Hernandez, who claims to be 28, had pitched many games for Cuba in the Olympics and baseball's world championships. He also had pitched for a top team in Cuba.

Asked Friday to identify his biggest game before now, he said through an interpreter, "The biggest game I have ever pitched was when I jumped on a raft and left Cuba."

It was obviously a wrenching decision, but after watching Livan in the playoffs last year, Hernandez apparently found the big leagues too tempting to resist.

Jumping on a makeshift raft to flee for freedom is a gamble that thousands of Cubans have taken in recent years. Not all have reached Florida, their desired destination. Sharks have attacked some rafts, with devastating results. Other rafts have been picked up and returned to Cuba.

Hernandez's raft landed on the Caribbean island of Anguilla Cay. Rather than accept a visa to enter the United States, Hernandez established his residence in Costa Rica and was granted free agency. He signed a multi-year contract with the Yankees in March, joined the team in June and went 12-4 with a 3.13 ERA.

"He supposedly came up [at first] for one game, but he never left," teammate Paul O'Neill said. "It was obvious that he knew how to pitch."

The Yankees turned their dream season over to him last night after Andy Pettitte was hammered for four homers in the Indians' 6-1 win in Game 3. Torre knew long before the game's first pitch that Hernandez wouldn't succumb to the tense circumstances.

"He came up to me at brunch and asked me how I was feeling," Torre said with a smile. "That was a sign that he was OK."

O'Neill gave him a 1-0 lead with a first-inning homer, and the Yankees scored twice more in the fourth on Chili Davis' double and Tino Martinez's sacrifice fly, which the Indians' Kenny Lofton dropped.

That was enough for Hernandez, who struck out six Indians and allowed only six batters to reach base in seven innings. His biggest jam came in the sixth, when the Indians put two runners on with one out. Hernandez struck out Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome to end the threat.

The Yankees' dugout erupted when Thome, who'd hit two homers the night before, was retired.

"That was the at-bat of the game," Torre said. "That was huge."

On this night, the Indians had none of the magic that had helped them in Game 2 and Game 3.

A rookie from Cuba had silenced their bats and turned the ALCS around.

Pub Date: 10/11/98

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