When David Hernandez was sent to Triple-A Reno in August, he took a 5.59 ERA with him, along with six losses and five blown saves.
But, as Arizona Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson said over the weekend, Hernandez has “come back a different guy.”
In seven outings since being recalled on Sept. 3, the hard-throwing right-hander has allowed just two hits and two walks, and no runs, while hitting a batter and striking out eight.
“He’s been great,” Gibson said Tuesday.
Hernandez had given up 10 home runs in 48.1 innings pitched prior to his demotion. In his previous two years combined with the Diamondbacks, the right-hander had allowed just eight homers.
Coming to Arizona from Baltimore in a trade before the 2011 season, Hernandez’s two years of solid, consistent relief work earned him a multi-year, multi-million dollar extension last August. The 28-year-old was a juggernaut in the eighth-inning setup role in 2011 and 2012, occasionally filling in as the Diamondbacks’ closer, compiling 48 holds, 15 saves, a 2.94 ERA and an 11.44 strikeout-per-nine rate in 147 appearances.
But things went awry early in 2013.
Hernandez had lost his confidence and he was rumored to be struggling with off-the-field issues. His manager said he “lacked conviction” in his pitches and he, himself, said he had no answers for his struggles.
The dominance he once possessed in close games had completely waned. The pressure which Hernandez once thrived under betrayed him. Though holding hitters to a .161 batting average in one-run games in his first two years with the Diamondbacks, Hernandez’s opponents had hit .252 against him in the first five months of the 2013 season.
The decline in performance, with little sign of improvement on the horizon, ultimately led general manager Kevin Towers and the Diamondbacks to option Hernandez to Reno on Aug. 11.
“I’m surprised they didn’t do it sooner,” he said after the move, which came on the heels of a two-run outing against the New York Mets.
Hernandez allowed nine earned runs, eight hits and seven walks in the six appearances, five innings pitched, preceding the move.
But his stint with Triple-A Reno proved successful. In nine games with the Aces, 9.2 innings pitched, he allowed just six hits and one run while striking out 12.
On Monday, Hernandez put his transformation on display. Called in to face the top of the Dodgers order in the eighth inning of a 2-1 game which his team led, Hernandez was excellent.
After striking out the Dodgers’ Nick Punto with a trio of 97 mph four-seam fastballs, he hit Mark Ellis. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly then opted to use the speedy Dee Gordon as a pinch runner, adding to the pressure of the situation. So, with a major base-stealing threat on first base, in stepped Adrian Gonzalez.
“I asked him to throw the ball over there several times,” Gibson said after the game. “He even threw over there a couple of times on his own, and he was able to do that and slide step and keep his mechanics together.”
Hernandez held Gordon close, throwing over to first baseman Paul Goldschmidt nearly a dozen times. Gonzalez, meanwhile, battled through the at-bat, seeing nine pitches before ultimately popping out with Gordon still held close at first base.
Hernandez then got Yasiel Puig to chase a curveball off the plate, ending the inning and the at-bat with a strikeout.
What Hernandez showed in the inning of work, beyond his resolve against a pair of the National League’s best hitters, was increased velocity on his fastball and improved use of his curveball.
“He didn’t have the mechanics in throwing the ball that well before,” Gibson said. “He didn’t have conviction in his pitches.
“He’s got a lot more velocity coming out of his arm right now and he’s been able to locate it much better.”
In the season’s first few months, the four-seamer sat at 95 mph. On Monday, it was consistently hitting 97 on the radar gun.
And back in July and August, Hernandez was throwing his curveball only about 25 percent of the time, also mixing in a chang-eup.
Now, in September, Hernandez has abandoned the change-up, throwing his fastball about 70 percent of the time and using his curveball for the other 30 percent.
Although the changes are likely too late to help the Diamondbacks in their now futile quest for the postseason, for Hernandez, they’re hopefully enough to salvage something from a season that was otherwise lost, giving him confidence as he heads into the final year of his contract.