READING - When Reading Phillies Manager Greg Legg decided to make the proverbial "call to the bullpen" this year, RHP Yoel Hernandez was often summoned. In fact, Yoel made 42 appearances from the pen this year, tops on the Phils relief corps.
Working from the pen was something new this year for the Phils 6'2" 23-year old right-hander who is a native of Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela. Before his arrival in Reading, Yoel was being groomed as a starter the last two years at the Philadelphia Phillies Class A affiliates in Lakewood, N.J. and Clearwater, Fla.
He went 6-9 for the Blue Claws in 2001 with a 3.47 ERA with 111 strike outs in 160 2/3 innings. The following year at Clearwater, he compiled a record of 7-16 while leading the Gulf Coast League with 170 1/3 innings pitched. He struck out 116, and recorded an impressive ERA of 3.54. Signed as an amateur free agent in 1998, Hernandez has been rated by Baseball America as Philadelphia's No. 30 prospect.
"I never saw myself as a reliever," admitted Hernandez, who was promoted last week to the Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons, "but if this is my chance to play in the big leagues, I'll take it."
His arsenal includes a 2-seam fast ball, slider, changeup, and curve ball. The fast ball and change up are his two best pitches.
In his role as a reliever with the Phils, Hernandez racked up 74 innings over those 43 appearances, going 6-3 with 2 saves and a 4.26 ERA.
One of the biggest differences he experienced out of the pen was in the getting ready phase. "As a starter, you take a long time warming up," he said. "In the bullpen, you have to get up real fast."
In his first year at the AA level, and it didn't take him long to get a lay of the land. "Oh, there are pretty good hitters here more than at Clearwater," he analyzed. "You're going to get hit.
"What was a ground ball or a fly out, up here it's a base hit or a double. You make a mistake here, you pay."
"There's not a lot of experience down there," said Phils Manager Greg Legg of his bullpen that has been more inconsistent than not through the season. "We're developing a 23-year old who has not been to Double A. I'd rather have a young guy get his lumps a little bit."
He explained that while some Eastern League teams will have three or four experienced relievers along with two or three first-timers at Double A, others like the Phils will go with the less experienced pitchers. It depends on the goals of the parent organization.
"It may look good on paper," he said of the more experienced bullpen, "but as an organization our belief is that if we have one experienced guy in the pen, we can have 5 or 6 guys coming through the system."
Legg has nothing but praise for his bullpen. "They never complained," he said, "Day in and day out they gave us a lot of effort. They developed unbelievable work habits (under the tutelage of R-Phils pitching coach Rod Nichols), and they got better."
Hernandez likes what he experienced this year. "I learned a lot as a reliever," he beamed. "Especially about pitching in the eighth or ninth inning when we're 2 runs ahead."
There was a game earlier this year in Harrisburg when he came in and learned a hard lesson. He had a 2-2 count on a hitter, and decided to throw his 2-seam fastball. Unfortunately, the hitter jumped on the pitch and walloped a three-run homer to win the game for the Senators, 3-2.
"I have started to pitch outside in the eighth and ninth inning," he said of his obvious adjustment, "especially when we have a one or two-run lead, so the batter will not pull the ball."
A little later in the season against the Erie SeaWolves in game two of a July 4th doubleheader, Hernandez nailed down the win with 3 1/3 innings of shut out ball. He showed what he had learned when he quelled a SeaWolves rally but striking out a SeaWolves hitter with the tying and winning runs in scoring position. With two outs and 9,000+ screaming fans on their feet, he ran the count ran to 3-2, then froze the hitter with a curve ball for strike three and the win.
"I never did that before," said an elated Hernandez of his late inning heroics and the reaction of the capacity crowd. I'd like to see more of that. It really built my confidence."
If all goes well, Red Baron and Phillies fans, too, will want to see more of that in the future.