CLEVELAND -- For over 119 seasons, the Cleveland organization has been putting together lineups for every game of every season, and not one player had accomplished the feat that Cesar Hernandez pulled off on Monday.
Hernandez started off the Indians’ 3-2 loss to the Twins with a bang, launching his 13th career leadoff homer in the bottom of the first after also starting Sunday’s game against the Tigers with a long ball for his first home run of the year. It marked the first time that a member of the Tribe hit a leadoff homer in back-to-back games.
“I didn't know anything [about] that,” Hernandez said. “In [Philadelphia], I had a streak of Opening Days with a home run [2017-18], but nothing related to following up in multiple games.”
It’s hard to believe that past leadoff hitters like Francisco Lindor, Grady Sizemore or Kenny Lofton weren’t first to the feat, but it may be even more difficult to believe that Hernandez has been the steady rock of the top of the Tribe’s lineup that boasts José Ramírez, Lindor and Carlos Santana.
The Indians were optimistic with their switch-hitting top of the order heading into the year, but after Hernandez, the team’s usual providers have been silent. Hernandez turned in his eighth multihit game of the year on Monday, which is the second most for the Indians, trailing just Franmil Reyes. He leads the team in hits (32), doubles (11) and is second in on-base percentage (.364) behind Santana (.389).
“[Hernandez] gives you a lot of professional at-bats,” Indians temporary manager Sandy Alomar Jr. said. “He goes deep in counts and he makes the pitcher work. That’s one of the things I like about Cesar and now he’s putting a barrel on the ball. If he’s able to accomplish all of this, it’s looking pretty good for him and for us.”
The Indians have been used to Lindor providing that spark at the top of the lineup over the last few seasons, which is what prompted them to move him down in the order so he’d have more opportunities to hit with runners on base. But Lindor’s struggling to get his bat going, while Hernandez has been thriving now that he’s back in the leadoff spot after spending a lot of time toward the bottom of the Phillies’ order in 2019.
“I think the two things for me I focus on is seeing as many pitches as possible, so that way we can see the stuff from the pitcher,” Hernandez said. “I help share information with the team on what he's throwing and what is actually happening when he comes to the plate. That way they can work out the at-bat and try to get on base as much as possible. I think that's what I've been focusing on, getting deep into the counts and getting on base as much as possible.”
The Tribe’s biggest obstacle remains trying to get the timely hit. Overall, the team is hitting just .234 with a .746 OPS with runners in scoring position after going 1-for-9 in Monday’s loss.
“It’s frustrating,” Alomar said. “I know the guys are trying. And trust me, these guys are trying everything. They have tried to swing early, they’ve gone deep in counts, they’ve tried to move runners at times, but want to put them in a situation where they can drive the baseball.”
The collective offensive struggles have prompted questions of whether the Indians should try shifting around their order. Hernandez has settled in at the top of the lineup and has stated how comfortable he feels. Would it be worth the risk to move him around to see if Lindor’s bat would start to catch fire if he got back to the top of the order? Maybe not. But they’d have good supporting evidence to get Hernandez more opportunities with runners on base, as he has gone 9-for-18 (.500) with a 1.167 OPS with runners in scoring position.
“I don't think there's any frustration whatsoever,” Hernandez said, when asked about the struggles to score runs. “I think we've proven that we [can be productive] when we put all those hits together and score [some] runs, so it's a matter of making sure the hits are coming at the right time, and we're going to keep doing our work and preparation to get to that point.”