MLB playoffs 2021 – Inside Boston Red Sox center fielder Enrique Hernandez’s historic October stretch


HOUSTON — When he was 13 years old, little Enrique Hernandez, always undersized and underappreciated, found himself glued to the television every night in October. “I never missed a playoff game,” he said, and that year in particular, 2004, had him rapt. For a kid growing up in Puerto Rico, baseball heroes abounded: Carlos Delgado, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada. At that moment, though, nobody was better than Carlos Beltran.

To see Beltran in the 2004 postseason was to see a painter rendering his masterwork. His potential blossomed, his talent radiated and his star glimmered. When he made an out, it was news. He carried the Houston Astros to the cusp of the World Series.

Seventeen years later, Hernandez — no longer undersized, now known as Kiké and finally appreciated — is turning in the sort of performance that he always believed existed inside of him. He believed it over the first seven years of his career when others didn’t, believed it when he landed with the Boston Red Sox as a free agent this winter and believed it as they’ve ridden him, like the Astros did Beltran, to the verge of something historic.

Hernandez continued his epic streak Saturday with another home run in the Red Sox’s 9-5 victory over the Astros in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. It was his fifth in seven games this postseason, during which he has gone 16 for 32 with a .500/.514/1.094 line, the best seven-game stretch to start a playoff run since Beltran’s .448/.529/1.138 with six home runs. Hernandez has set first-seven-game records for the most total bases (35, beating Beltran’s 33) and extra-base hits (nine), alongside tying Hideki Matsui’s record hit total.

And best of all, he won the approval of perhaps the most hard-to-please teammate in his career. Chase Utley, the six-time All-Star second baseman with whom Hernandez played for four seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, is notoriously loath to lavish praise. In the midst of Hernandez’s jag, however, he sent his old pupil a single text message. There were no words. Just an emoji.

👍

“That,” Hernandez said, “is the biggest compliment in the world.”

Hernandez, 30, has bathed in plenty of acclaim from others. His Red Sox teammates. Opponents on the Tampa Bay Rays, who Boston ousted in the division series, as well as the Astros, who survived two of his home runs to win Game 1. Evaluators around the sport, who no longer wonder why Red Sox manager Alex Cora is slotting Hernandez in the No. 2 hole in a lineup that includes Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez and Kyle Schwarber.

“I always knew I was capable of this,” Hernandez told ESPN in the aftermath of Game 2. “It was just a matter of me getting the opportunity.”

And that, as much as anything, is the story of how Hernandez emerged as the breakout star of this postseason. It is a tale of resilience, of overcoming doubt, of chances taken and delivered upon — of a sport that, more than any other, allows players to redefine themselves long after their narratives have been written in ink.

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Enrique Hernandez ends the bottom of the second with a diving catch, and leads off the top of the third with a mammoth home run.

For Hernandez, it was always about what he wasn’t. He wasn’t Carlos Correa or Francisco Lindor or Javier Baez, the jewels of his generation from Puerto Rico. He wasn’t a center fielder or shortstop or second baseman but rather a superutility player, consigned to filling gaps instead of finding himself consistently on a lineup card. He wasn’t part of the Astros future when he made it to the big leagues five years after they drafted him in 2009, so they traded him to the Miami Marlins, and he wasn’t part of their future, either, so they traded him to the Dodgers, and as many big hits as he got during his 142 postseason plate appearances for them, he wasn’t ever a big enough part of their present for his liking.

Hernandez wanted to play every day, full-time. And while he played most days over the last four seasons, it was in the sort of role that saw him consistently subbed in or out depending on the platoon advantage. He never shook the reputation in Los Angeles for hammering left-handed pitching and struggling against right-handers, even though over the last three years his OPS against both sides was nearly identical.

“When I went against right-handers,” Hernandez said, “I felt like I had to get four hits in one at-bat.”

It gnawed at his patience and, as much as he tried to remain positive, ate away at him. While the belief in himself resonated to his core, Hernandez’s levels of trust vacillated, sometimes by the day. He would tinker and tweak and go through stretches in which he wondered if his break was ever coming. He was always a good teammate, beloved in the Dodgers’ clubhouse, personable, a quintessential glue guy. And he made the Dodgers better with his versatility, contributing mightily to their postseason runs. His game-tying home run in Game 7 of the NLCS last season helped keep the Dodgers alive en route to their first World Series win in more than three decades.

At the same time, he knew there was more to him than a secondary role. He grew close to Justin Turner, the Dodgers’ third baseman who didn’t get full-time at-bats until he was 31. Turner preached persistence, perseverance. Hernandez heard the words and tried to listen. When he hit free agency following the 2020 season, the Red Sox recruited him more aggressively than anyone, with Cora — who as general manager had chosen Hernandez to play for Puerto Rico’s World Baseball Classic team — leading the charge.

Hernandez signed a two-year, $14 million deal with the Red Sox and was told he’d play every day. He ping-ponged between second base and center field, and occasionally, when he struggled, Hernandez would text Turner seeking nuggets of advice. Turner’s words buoyed Hernandez, and before a rough bout with COVID-19 that kept him out for nearly two weeks between August and September, he was on pace to play a career high in games. Even after the down time, Hernandez logged 585 plate appearances, qualified for the batting title for the first time and put up nearly five Wins Above Replacement.

He also seemingly found his position. Hernandez locked down the center field role and has been brilliant there in October, tracking deep fly balls with aplomb, sprinting in and diving to snag tumbling line drives, and unleashing otherworldly throws that have been clocked as high as 97.5 mph. Of course, as much as his feet and glove have impressed — as good of an impression as he’s done at the position where Beltran defined himself — Hernandez’s bat remains the showpiece thus far.

Most impressive is the seeming inability of pitchers to find anything that confounds Hernandez. He is tagging fastballs, batting .350 with one home run. He is mauling everything else, going 9 for 12 with four home runs, three doubles and a 2.000 slugging percentage — yes, that’s two thousand — against sliders, curveballs, changeups and split-fingered fastballs. Since baseball began tracking pitches in 2008, no hitter had whacked seven extra-base hits against soft stuff during a single postseason. Hernandez has done it already and the postseason isn’t even halfway over.

Nothing, it seems, can stop Hernandez at this point — not even a nasty bout of food poisoning his wife, Mariana, suffered through during the trip to Houston. It’s back to Boston now, back to the comforts of home and Fenway Park, which will host Game 3 on Monday. The Red Sox, after their record fifth consecutive postseason game with 10-plus hits, stole home-field advantage with Game 2’s home run barrage — two grand slams preceded Hernandez’s blast — and could conceivably wrap up their fifth World Series berth since 2004 in front of their fans.

Boston never got to face Beltran in ’04, as the Astros, then in the National League, bowed out in the championship series to St. Louis. In his last five games that postseason, Beltran remained red hot, batting .412/.545/.824 as the Cardinals committed to walking him in more than 20% of his plate appearances. They did so with Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and Jeff Kent — the same caliber of protection that backs Hernandez — hitting behind Beltran. So the notion of Hernandez being fed a diet of bad pitches isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Until he starts making outs, it might be the best hope the Astros have to navigate what they couldn’t have seen coming. Nobody did, really, but then that’s what makes Kiké Hernandez’s October thus far so special. It’s the sort of thing everyone, finally, can appreciate.



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