Hernandez learns on job

JuCo star who spurned Okla. thrives as pro

Minor Leagues

May 15, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

David Hernandez faced a dilemma.

He had just put up the best pitching season in Cosumnes River College history - 12-1 with a 2.29 ERA and a school-record 119 strikeouts. And some draft experts had told the quiet Californian he would be a first-round pick, a fifth- or sixth-rounder at worst.

But come selection day 2005, Hernandez dropped and dropped until the Orioles picked him in the 16th round. That was better than his draft spot coming out of high school, but still, he had doubts about signing. Should he fulfill a commitment to Oklahoma instead? Well, that posed its own problems. Sooners coach Larry Cochell had just resigned after using racially insensitive language during an off-camera interview with an ESPN crew.

Finally, the Orioles offered a contract that seemed more commensurate with a fifth- or sixth-round selection. So Hernandez, 21, jumped at the offer to come east and pitch professionally. He hasn't regretted it.

"I love it here," said the right-hander, who pitches for the Single-A Delmarva Shorebirds. "In college, there are so many players that it's hard to get individual time with your coaches. But here, there's somebody watching you during every side session. I'm really learning."

He's pitching pretty well, too. In 34 2/3 innings for the Shorebirds, Hernandez has a 3.12 ERA, 45 strikeouts and 13 walks. On Thursday, he out-dueled Lakewood BlueClaws ace Matthew Maloney for his first win of the season. Hernandez allowed one run and struck out eight in five innings.

He has emerged as one of the more overlooked arms in an Orioles draft class loaded with potential major league pitchers.

Hernandez, 6 feet 2 and 180 pounds, works with a low-90s fastball, a slider and a changeup that coaches say might be his best pitch.

Though he doesn't walk many batters, he sometimes runs up high pitch counts as he strives to hit the ideal spot with every toss.

"He'll try to make perfect pitches right off the bat," said Delmarva pitching coach Kennie Steenstra. "But that's normal. It's something a lot of young guys go through."

Hernandez said he hopes to be a more confident pitcher by season's end.

"Sometimes, I go out there and try to outguess that batter," he said. "I need to realize that a lot of times, my stuff is good enough to get them out if I just throw strikes."

Steenstra tells Hernandez to trust that if he throws strikes, his natural stuff will fool most hitters. The coach especially wants Hernandez to gain confidence in his fastball and learn to keep it down consistently.

"It definitely has a little extra life on it," Steenstra said. "It gets up on people a little quicker than they expect for some reason."

Hernandez may not throw hard enough to be a pure power pitcher in the high minors and major leagues.

"He's gonna be a guy who relies more on command as he moves up," Steenstra said. "But he's definitely got enough fastball."

He also has a demeanor that coaches love. From the time Hernandez emerged as a high school star in the Sacramento area, stories have described him as soft-spoken and placid on the mound.

"That's a good thing," Steenstra said. "He doesn't get on an emotional roller coaster like a lot of young guys out there."

That calm has always come naturally.

"I'm just not a person who gets rattled very easily," Hernandez said.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

On deck

Double-A Bowie will host the opener of a three-game series with the Harrisburg Senators at 7:05 p.m. tomorrow, and general admission seats will cost $1 each.

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