NEW YORK -- There will be no groans or sighs as Keith Hernandez watches the World Series over the next two weeks. This Phillies team, once a source of consternation for him, is now Keith Hernandez Approved.
Count Hernandez among those impressed by the Phillies, who have managed to turn their 87-win regular season into a National League pennant. But it wasn’t always a smooth ride. Back in August, during a lighter moment on the Mets’ broadcast, Hernandez -- a color commentator for SNY since 2006 -- said he wasn’t scheduled to work an upcoming Mets-Phillies series after telling network executives “that I hate doing Phillies games.”
“You hate doing Phillies games?” play-by-play man Gary Cohen asked in response.
“They never seem to disappoint,” Hernandez replied. “As far as fundamentally, defensively, the Phillies have always been just not up to it.”
The comments gained a foothold at the other end of the Jersey Turnpike, where players, coaches and fans took varying levels of offense. Manager Rob Thomson said he respected Hernandez’s opinion, “but it doesn’t mean I have to agree with it.” The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a 1,500-word defense of the Phillies’ defense. NBC Sports Philadelphia began flashing a “Keith Hernandez Approved Fundamental Play” graphic to highlight excellent defensive efforts over the final two months of the season.
For the Phillies, this was no joke. This hit a nerve for a reason. As highlighted in an MLB.com story that ran around the same time, the Phillies improved from minus-20 outs above average as a team in May to plus-5 OAA in July. Alec Bohm made significant strides at third base, and the Phillies acquired Brandon Marsh to shore up their defense in center field. Positioning tweaks allowed them to become more cohesive as a unit, while pitching improvements limited the chances for errors.
Although the Phillies didn’t finish the year as an elite defensive team, it was easy to see that they were markedly better.
“That team didn’t know how to win,” Hernandez said this week in a telephone interview. “They found out how to win. They found out that it’s fun. … They started doing little things because they wanted to get to the World Series. They wanted the brass ring.”
More than anything, Hernandez -- an 11-time Gold Glover at first base who often peppers Mets broadcasts with references to his love for “good fundies” -- cited improvements to Philadelphia’s pitching staff for the turnaround. He also credited Bryce Harper’s return to health, Thomson’s move to the manager’s office and what he referred to as a bit of “addition by subtraction” elsewhere on the roster. With those changes in place, the Phillies clinched the playoffs during the final week of the season, then knocked off three higher-seeded teams en route to the pennant.
Along the way, Hernandez began rooting for the Phillies despite their status as a division rival. As a player who spent 16 of his 17 big league seasons in the Senior Circuit, Hernandez says he always roots for the NL representative in the World Series -- even more so if it’s a team from the NL East.
“I’m a National League guy,” Hernandez said. “My feeling is if guys go from my division, that makes our division look better -- ‘Hey, we’ve got the toughest division.’ And it sure looks like that now.”
As for next season, Hernandez, who expects to negotiate a new contract with SNY in the coming months, fully intends to be in the Citizens Bank Park visiting TV booth alongside Cohen and Ron Darling.
“That was all just a joke,” he said, laughing. “I’ll be in Philly. It’s important that the three of us do the divisional games.”