Hernández answers leadoff call with 2 HRs

July 28th, 2020

On an imperfect day for the Blue Jays, was just what they needed after a late bump up to the leadoff spot.

Taking the place of Bo Bichette, a late scratch with left hamstring tightness, Hernández sent the second pitch of the ballgame 413 feet into the right-center-field seats. After Rowdy Tellez and Danny Jansen chipped in solo shots of their own in the fourth inning, Hernández went deep again in the fifth, giving the Blue Jays some breathing room in their 4-1 win over the Nationals on Monday at Nationals Park.

Hernández isn’t your typical leadoff man (he entered Monday with a .303 career on-base percentage), but his raw power doesn’t get the respect it deserves. After a stint with Triple-A Buffalo last season, the 27-year-old launched 23 home runs in his final 86 games with the Blue Jays, and there’s a real belief among many in the organization that his bat could still jump to another level. There will be strikeouts, but when Hernández connects, it’s loud.

“Those guys, they’re pretty good,” said Nationals starter Aníbal Sánchez, who allowed all four home runs. “They swing hard every pitch. And Hernández, we’ve got a long history. This guy, I think, hit pretty good against me. I think I missed a couple pitches against him. When you miss pitches against the wrong guy, that’s what happens."

Hernández's success since mid-2019 isn’t the result of some grand realization or swing change. For him, less is more, and simplifying his approach has been the key.

"I was trying to stay back as much as I can,” Hernández said. “I know he's a good pitcher. Everybody knows that. My approach was trying to go the other way and get a pitch that I could drive to the outfield. He gave me two and I put a good swing on them."

Up until the moment Hernández made contact in the top of the first, the day hadn’t exactly been filled with good news for the Blue Jays. Closer Ken Giles was placed on the injured list with a right forearm strain, Randal Grichuk was held out with back tightness, Travis Shaw was placed on family medical leave and Toronto was left without its star shortstop. The big effort from Hernández was needed, even just four games in, and helped to distract from starter Trent Thornton’s early battles.

The box score will show that Thornton allowed one run over four innings and escaped with a tidy 2.25 ERA, but the game itself told a different story. Thornton allowed 10 baserunners, and while credit is due to the young right-hander for dancing out of multiple jams, some work remains in his goal of becoming a more efficient pitcher.

“I was trying to attack the strike zone and get ahead early," Thornton said. "They have a really good lineup with a lot of veteran guys, so they put together a lot of good at-bats. I felt like I could have had a couple better putaway pitches, but they battle up there and that’s a good team. They’re the reigning World Series champions, so they know what they’re doing.”

With 74 pitches over four innings -- which could have been higher if not for some timely double plays and baserunning errors by the Nats -- Thornton was right in line with his 17.9 pitches per inning from 2019. Of 131 pitchers in MLB to throw 100-plus innings last season, that was the sixth-highest total.

On the back end, Anthony Bass got his first crack at the closer role with Giles sidelined. So far, so good, as he allowed just one hit and locked it down.