SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Standing inside the Arizona Diamondbacks’ clubhouse at Salt River Fields, David Hernandez is smiling.
That wasn’t always the case last year.
“I think he lost confidence last year. It was a tough year for him,” manager Kirk Gibson said.
Tough doesn’t even begin to describe Hernandez’s 2013 season as he faced battles on two fronts: on and off the field.
During his first two seasons with the Diamondbacks, Hernandez had been one of the more reliable arms in the bullpen. And coming off a career year in 2012 (2.50 ERA with 22 walks and 98 strikeouts in 72 appearances), he was expected to once again be one of the main guys the team could turn to late in games.
But Hernandez struggled.
The Diamondbacks initially stuck with their hard-throwing setup reliever. They encouraged him. They put him in low-pressure situations. However, his inconsistency throwing the ball and failure to retire hitters finally landed him in Reno.
“When we finally sent him down (to Triple-A), he was relieved,” Gibson recalled.
Hernandez welcomed the move.
“Obviously, no one wants to be sent down at any point,” he said. “But for me, being sent down was -— after going day in and day out and just failing over and over and over, the pressure just starts mounting and mounting to try and be successful — I was actually happy when they sent me down. I was just relieved. I just felt like the weight of the world just got lifted off my shoulders.”
When Hernandez was optioned on August 11, he had a 5.59 ERA (30 ER in 48.1 IP) in 48 appearances. Obviously something was wrong.
“Being sent down, I just able to go down and just have fun, play baseball again,” he said. “In the end, you always want to do well no matter where you’re at, but I just knew being in Triple-A, it was just a time to just fix myself in general and my personal life and baseball as well. I just felt like the two were mixing. As much I would tell teammates, ‘oh, it’s not bothering me,’ but you really don’t understand how much it bothers you until you go through it. It’s one of those things where it’s hard to separate the two.”
While he wouldn’t get into details as to what was troubling him, it was clear Hernandez needed a break. He used every bit of the 72 hours allotted him before reporting to Reno.
“I had three days to not even think about baseball, so I went home and saw family, saw my kids. Doing that was just a breath of fresh air,” he said.
It worked, as did working with Reno Aces pitching coach Mike Parrott.
In nine games for the Aces, Hernandez had two saves and a 0.93 ERA (1 ER in 9.2 IP), holding opponents scoreless in eight of nine appearances.
That strong pitching continued once he returned to the Diamondbacks.
In 14 September appearances, Hernandez had a 0.64 ERA (1 ER in 14 IP) with four walks and 16 strikeouts while batters hit just .130 against him.
Standing in front of his locker fresh off another spring training workout, Hernandez is convinced his 2013 struggles are in the past.
“I’m here in a clear state of mind, which is exciting,” he said, still with that smile across his face. “I feel like I can just be here and just think about baseball. That’s something that was second to me last year. I felt like I would come to the park and not even focus on baseball. It was just so hard to give my 100 percent attention and concentration into the game. It wasn’t fair to my teammates and myself because struggling that last year was so just so hard because I knew I could succeed and that’s what made it even worse.”
The offseason was big for Hernandez.
He said he put his personal life in order and re-dedicated himself to his professional life. He’s changed his eating habits as well as his workout routine, all of which has left him 20 pounds lighter since August.
“It always helps when you have that mindset knowing that you did the right things in the offseason,” Hernandez said. “It also feels better when people actually notice. I can’t even tell you how many have come up to me (and said), ‘wow, you look like you shed a few pounds.’ I feel like it was the right thing to do and I feel good.”
Count Gibson among those who have noticed.
“Just look at his body,” he said. “He’s in better shape this year. He’s a lot leaner. His mind is right. He’s just in a better spot mentally, physically.”
It’s why Hernandez is perhaps more anxious than most to begin the upcoming season.
“I just feel like it’s going to be a different year. I’m really looking forward to it,” he said.