Classic Yankees: Orlando Hernandez

el-duqueIn baseball seasons’ past, and especially before the advent of the wild card, teams would win 100 games and not make the postseason. See the 1942 Dodgers (104-50), 1954 Yankees (103-51), 1961 Tigers (101-61) or 1993 Giants (103-59). It’s tough to take. Even when the Yanks made the postseason in 1980 or 2002 for instance, not making the World Series and losing in the ALDS or ALCS after 103 wins was heartbreaking to Yankees fans.

You can only imagine the disappointment Mariners fans had in 2001 when they lost the ALCS to the Yankees in five games after going 116-46 that year.

In 1998, the Yankees went 114-48 and swept the Rangers in the ALDS. It looked like smooth sailing. However after three games of the ALCS, the Yanks were staring at a two games to one deficit, thanks partly to Chuck Knoblauch’s brain lock in Game Two of that ALCS.

Taking the mound for Game Four was a pitcher who less than a year earlier was on a boat in waters off of Cuba, hoping for a safe getaway from the land of Fidel. His half-brother Livan Hernandez had just been named the World Series MVP a few months prior.

Orlando Hernandez, nicknamed El Duque, was a star Cuban pitcher for Castro’s national team. If he felt any pressure before Game Four, he didn’t show it. After all, he faced enough pressure just trying to escape Cuba months before.

His birth date was in dispute. One report was that he was born in 1969, but it’s accepted that 1965 was the correct date. He was 32 when he pitched in his first MLB game in June of 1998. He only added to that wondrous year with a record of 12-4, 3.13 and an ERA+ of 142. He finished 4th in the ROY voting.

He had a variety of pitches. Quite simply, the man knew how to pitch and knew what he was doing on the mound. With his high leg kick and athleticism, he soon became of the most reliable postseason starting  pitchers on the team, if not the most reliable, which was saying something considering he had teammates like Cone, Wells,  Clemens, Mussina and Pettitte.

He didn’t pitch in the 1998 ALDS, but in that Game Four of the ALCS, with the 114-win Yanks needing a win to even up the series and avoid going down 3-1, Hernandez pitched three-hit shutout ball for seven innings and got the win. It started a great postseason run for El Duque, as he quickly proved himself to be a money pitcher—the guy you wanted on the mound when the chips were on the line.

Hernandez then started Game Two of the WS. Helped by a good catch by Paul O’Neill, El Duque settled in and got the win, giving up just one run in seven innings.

His best year was the following year. Hernandez went 17-9, 4.12, ERA+ 115. His high leg kick led to a humorous commercial, featuring El Duque, Luis Sojo, Clay Bellinger (to the left of Sojo in the video) and David Cone.

The 1999 postseason, in many ways, was an El Duque show. In the ALDS, he tossed eight innings of two-hit shutout ball. Some may point to the six walks and scoff, but I remember watching that game and admiring how El Duque pitched around certain guys. He would rather walk a guy than let them beat him with an extra-base hit. He knew who he wanted to pitch to and pitched with a plan. He knew how to attack a lineup and used his strategy effectively. He would not let the big guy beat him.

That excellence carried into the 1999 ALCS, where El Duque was named the MVP. He started two games, going 1-0, 1.29. He had a shutout going into the 8th inning of Game Five, and struck out nine. Then in Game 1 of the WS, he was as good as one could be. He gave up a HR to Chipper Jones, but that was the only hit and run he gave up over seven innings of pitching. He walked two and struck out ten.

His record wasn’t as good in 2000, 12-13, 4.51, ERA+ 107 (in that steroid-filled era, an ERA of 4.51 still merited an ERA+ of 107!), but once again he came up big in the postseason. He got the win in Game Three of the ALDS, giving up two runs in seven innings. He came on in relief to get an out in Game Five. He won two games in the ALCS against Seattle, giving up one run in eight innings of work in Game Two.

Going into the 2000 WS, Hernandez had a postseason record of 8-0, 1.90. His unbeaten string was stopped by the Mets in Game Three of that year’s WS, but Hernandez once again pitched well in a postseason game. He struck out 12, but gave up 4 R in 7 1/3 as he lost 4-2.

After turning 35 in October 2000, injuries started to hit El Duque. He went just 4-7, 4.85 in 2001 while posting an ERA+ of just 93. He missed about 13 starts. But once again, he came up huge in the postseason. Facing elimination in Game Four of the ALDS, Hernandez went 5 2/3, gave up just two runs, and got the win. He lost his ALCS start, giving up 5 R, 4 ER, in 5 IP. He rebounded to form in Game Four of the WS, giving up just one run on four hits in going 6 1/3 and getting a no-decision. This was the game of Tino’s 9th inning HR and Jeter becoming “Mr. November.”

Hernandez went 8-5, 3.64, ERA+ 122 in 2002. 1999 was the only year of El Duque’s career in which he pitched in 30 games and/or pitched 200 innings. His two postseason appearances were both in relief, and he gave up two runs in 6 1/3 IP, taking the loss in Game Two.

The Yanks traded El Duque to the White Sox in January 2003, and they in turn immediately shipped him off to Montreal. Shoulder woes hit Hernandez and he missed the entire 2003 season.

At the end of 2003, El Duque became a free agent, and in March of 2004, the Yankees brought him back. He pitched well with the Yanks in 2004, going 8-2, 3.30, ERA+ 137. The tides of history may have been changed when late in the season, Hernandez got injured. He missed the ALDS series, but then started Game Four of the ALCS (the injury prevented him from starting earlier) as the Yanks tried to close out Boston. He gave up three runs in five innings, as he struggled (three hits, five walks). Another thing that helped Boston beat “The Curse” was a rainout of Game Three. With that rainout, the off-day between Games Five and Six were eliminated. How did this help Boston? El Duque, with his postseason pedigree, started Game Four. Ok, he got a ND. But if Game Four were played when originally scheduled, Hernandez may have been tabbed by Torre to start Game Seven—on three days’ rest. Instead, it was Kevin Brown who started (and got rocked), with Javy Vazquez coming in to relieve Brown (and giving up the grand slam to Damon). Because of the rainout and everything being pushed back, Hernandez had just two days of rest and couldn’t start Game Seven vs. the Red Sox. We’ll never know what might have happened, but Yankee fans who remember that, and even those who don’t, would probably rather have had the savvy, wily, playoff tough El Duque starting that game rather than Kevin Brown.

El Duque won his fourth WS ring (three with the Yankees) by being with the White Sox in 2005, and had a big role in dethroning the Red Sox. His record for the Pale Hose wasn’t great in 2005, 9-9, 5.12, ERA+ 88, but once again, when you gave Orlando Hernandez a postseason spotlight, he proved his worth. In the Division Series vs. Boston, he came in to pitch in Game Three. The White Sox were up 2-0 in games, and had a 4-3 lead in Game Three as they were trying to eliminate the Red Sox. Boston had the bases loaded and no one out. El Duque got two popups and a strikeout, and Boston couldn’t tie the game. El Duque pitched three scoreless innings, struck out four, and the White Sox eliminated Boston 5-3. What a job. He pitched one scoreless inning for the White Sox in the 2005 WS. He was traded to Arizona for the 2006 season.

Hernandez finished at 9-3, 2.55 in the postseason.

He started 2006 with Arizona, and appeared done. In nine starts, the forty-year-old was 2-4, 6.11 and was dealt to the Mets. He rebounded with the Mets, going 9-7, 4.09 for them. Overall, he had an 11-11 record, ERA 4.66, ERA+ 96. As in 2004, an injury to El Duque may have impacted the postseason. He couldn’t pitch for the Mets in the 2006 postseason, and seeing that the Mets lost the NLCS to St. Louis in seven, you once again wonder if this great postseason pitcher could have changed the outcome.

Hernandez ended his career with the Mets in 2007. At 41, he still could pitch well, and he went 9-5, 3.72, ERA+ 116. Once again, an El Duque injury may have impacted a season or postseason. After August 30th, he could only start one game, which he lost, on September 11th. After September 11th, he appeared in three games, all in relief. That year, the Mets had a seven game lead with 17 to go. They blew it. Who knows what would have happened had El Duque been healthy and had been able to start more than one game that month of September?

El Duque’s total MLB numbers don’t look too great, 90-65, 4.13, ERA+ 110, but those who know that he didn’t pitch in the majors until he was 32, know the reason why, and who know of his postseason success (9-3, 2.55) know that in October, El Duque, wearing #26, was one pitcher you didn’t want to see on the mound if you were the other team.

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One Response to Classic Yankees: Orlando Hernandez

  1. Susan says:

    A great article Mike and a fun trip down memory lane. I loved El Duque. He had guts and we could sure use a guy like this these days to go against Boston. For the record, I would have rather had El Duque pitch that Game 7 on zero days rest rather than Kevin "AJ" Brown.

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