For the past two games, Roberto Hernandez had given up five runs and been pulled early. Tonight, with the bullpen taxed and Joel Peralta unavailable, that would not do. So Hernandez stepped up and nearly pitched a complete game, being pulled after only 92 pitches with two outs in the ninth after Placido Polanco hit a seeing eye single through the gap between third base and shortstop. (Fernando Rodney got the one out save after Matt Joyce tracked down a line drive in deep right field.) His final line read as 8.2 innings on 92 pitches, one run (unearned), three hits, five strikeouts, and no walks.
Let me get the bad out of the way first. Hernandez was a little bit lucky. There were some hard hit balls that on a different day could have fallen for hits, and might have even turned into home runs with a touch more backspin. But he was also very good. After the first inning, he mostly kept the ball down, and he pounded the zone, rarely even reaching three-ball counts. There was something else very interesting happening.
Hernandez threw his slider 22 times (24%), producing 16 strikes and two whiffs. Over the course of his career, he's only thrown his slider 12% of the time and 2013 has been in line with those career numbers. Now I've been a pretty big Hernandez fan this year, but I didn't see this coming as a way for him to succeed. I've noted that he's found success by throwing more good changeups and by locating a front-door sinker to lefties. But his slider is an inferior pitch to his other two. I suppose sometimes you have an unusually good feel for a pitch, and in this age of highly detailed advanced scouting it pays to be unpredictable.
Lost in the Hernandez performance might be the fact that young Marlin's pitcher Tom Koehler was impressive. He wasn't just "another brand-new pitcher shutting down the Rays" impressive, he was legit. I don't know why he's been used as a reliever recently, but he has a starter's repertoire and should stick there.
That's a live fastball up into the mid 90s with good movement (ignore the MLBAM classifications here, they're not well differentiated between two-seam and four-seam, but Koehler does throw both), a changeup with sink, a hard slider in the high 80s, and a very nice curve with good bite in the low 80s. Against the Rays he threw all of them well, especially the curve. He gets a ton of credit for the Rays' relatively poor offensive performance
A few batters into the first inning, though, it seemed like Koehler would not be long for the game. The first three Rays were all over his good fastball. Ben Zobrist grounded into left field, Matt Joyce lined down the right field line, and Kelly Johnson brought Zobrist home with a line drive single of his own. Koehler caught a break when Evan Longoria grounded into a double play (scoring a run), and after getting out of the inning, the young starter settled down well to pitch a strong game.
In the bottom of the first inning, the Marlins got one run back. Chris Coghlan lined a double off of a Roberto Hernandez elevated fastball over the plate. It was exactly the type of pitch the Rays want Hernandez not to throw. On the next pitch, also an elevated fastball, Placido Polanco hit a high fly ball to right. Matt Joyce set up under it and let fly a strong throw to third base in time to beat a tagging Coghlan. The flow was slightly to Longoria's right though, and on a short hop, and Longo missed the grab. Roberto Hernandez was backing the play up, but not well enough, and the throw bounced into the stands gifting the Marlins an unearned run. It was ruled an error on Joyce, but don't be fooled — the throw was strong and reasonably accurate.
The Rays tacked on another run in the seventh inning when, with one out, James Loney pulled his hands in and smacked a hard liner into the right-field corner. Desmond Jennings singled him over to third with a ground ball up the middle and Yunel Escobar did a a fine job on an inside curve. It was the kind of pitch that a batter will usually pull, but Escobar took a controlled, inside-out swing flied and the ball out to right center to bring home the run.
Finally, with two outs in the ninth inning, Hernandez threw Placido Polanco a changeup that Polanco grounded into just the right spot between third base and shortstop. The ball was not well hit, and Hernandez looked to be in control, but Joe Maddon had Fernando Rodney ready in the bullpen and with the tying run at the plate he immediately called for his closer. I didn't like the decision, but here's how I explain it. In a close game, Maddon wants Rodney ready in case Hernandez gets into trouble. Once Rodney has warmed up though, it doesn't make a ton of difference to his arm if he faces a batter or two, so as soon as the leverage creeped high enough, it started to make sense for Maddon to pitch his best reliever (a closer is a hypothetically better option than most any starter at the end of a game). Add in Maddon's wish to make sure Hernandez left with his confidence intact and to build Rodney's confidence with an easy save, and the decision makes a bit more sense.
Dietrich hit a hard fly ball to the edge of the warning track in right field, but Joyce chased it down to record the out.
Some other notes:
- Desmond Jennings had a difficult night on the basepaths. In his first at bat, he singled, but then was thrown out on the third of three consecutive pickoff attempts. Then, in his second at bat, he earned a walk but was thrown out stealing second. He actually beat the throw, but then slid past the bag and Derek Dietrich applied the tag.
- The ball caries well off of Dietrich's bat. In the bottom of the fourth inning, he got his arms extended on a changeup, and sent Matt Joyce all the way to the warning track in perhaps the deepest part of the field.
- In the eighth inning, Roberto Hernandez showed bunt on the first pitch (with no one on base). I would love to see Hernandez bunt for a base hit.
- All game long, Matt Joyce got good reads in the outfield.