Could El Duque become a reliever?
Postseason heroics suggest he could be bullpen stalwart
HOUSTON -- Could one of the most accomplished hurlers coming from Cuba's rich baseball landscape eventually become a top-flight reliever in the United States?
Both Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, the veteran in question, and Don Cooper, his pitching coach on the White Sox, answer no to that particular inquiry. But the results from El Duque's recent relief stints might indicate otherwise.
Hernandez turned in another effort that legends are made of during Game 3 of the World Series on Tuesday night. Hernandez entered with the game tied at 5 in the ninth and easily retired leadoff hitter Adam Everett.
After walking Chris Burke, Hernandez became his own worst enemy by throwing away a pickoff throw at first base and allowing Burke to get a running start in a steal of third. Burke stood on third as the winning run, with one out, but that was when Hernandez went into overdrive on the mound.
The lesson in pitching started with him working around Craig Biggio, who walked to face rookie Willy Taveras. El Duque struck out Taveras with a 2-2 slider, dropping down three-quarters on the pitch. An intentional walk to Lance Berkman followed, before the veteran right-hander struck out Morgan Ensberg to end the inning.
Young players such as Taveras and Ensberg really had seen nothing previously to prepare for El Duque's guile and varied skills on the mound, not to mention his two or three arm angles in every at-bat.
"It's very unique," Cooper said. "It's making me think that I wish everyone could have seen him seven or eight years ago, when he was doing all of that with top of the line stuff, on top of it."
Hernandez exited in the 10th, with spasms in his left trapezius muscle. But he was ready for action Wednesday, according to athletic trainer Herm Schneider. El Duque joked after Tuesday's marathon that he took a muscle relaxant and hoped that would do the job.
"Fingers crossed," said Hernandez with a broad smile, while holding up his right hand.
The only way for Hernandez to basically earn his way onto this year's playoff roster over rookie Brandon McCarthy was to prove he could pitch out of the bullpen. Hernandez scored high marks in this particular audition during the final week of the regular season at Jacobs Field in Cleveland, striking out four over three hitless innings in relief.
His three scoreless innings during Game 3 of the American League Division Series against Boston at Fenway Park was work that added to his legendary postseason status, and Tuesday did nothing to tarnish that playoff reputation. But Hernandez doesn't sound convinced of his future coming out of the bullpen.
"I want to start next year again," he said. "But I don't know what I will be doing. I don't have a decision yet. I am feeling very good right now."
Hernandez seems to have a little more life on his pitches, checking in regularly at 93 mph on the fastball, not to mention a little more movement. But his track record as part of the rotation is right there in black and white.
In 158 starts for the Yankees and White Sox, Hernandez has posted a 70-49 career record with a 4.11 ERA. Those numbers took a hit in 2005, when various injuries limited Hernandez to a 9-9 mark with a 5.12 ERA in 128 1/3 innings and 22 starts. He also is a postseason force, with a 9-3 record as part of the Yankees.
Keeping McCarthy out of the rotation in 2006 would seem to be a tough proposition, especially after he finished with a 3-1 record and 1.69 ERA in his final seven appearances. With Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras already locked into the starting five, Hernandez appears to be the man on the spot -- barring a trade.
Does that mean the White Sox will try to move Hernandez and his $4.5 million salary for 2006 or try to work him into the bullpen? Cooper believes El Duque is too structured to switch now, but knows his pitching wisdom gives him the chance to handle pretty much any responsibility thrown in his direction.
"He can pitch in any role," Cooper said. "He could close games because of his savvy and heart and demeanor and his mind. He can keep his feet on the ground when the Earth is shaking. But if you ask him and me, he's a starter."
Said general manager Ken Williams: "Whether it be starting or relieving, he certainly can handle this stage. That's been proven over time. As far as next year and where we are going with that, I'm not going to think about that right now."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.