Blue Jays’ Hernandez, Clippard appreciative of time with Astros

Houston Astros owner Jim Crane, left, presents 2017 World Series rings to Toronto Blue Jays Teoscar Hernandez, center, and Tyler Clippard. (Eric Christian Smith/AP)

HOUSTON — As you may have heard, the Houston Astros won a World Series in 2017. And of the 46 players who appeared for that championship team, Teoscar Hernandez may have contributed the least.

He entered a late April contest as a defensive replacement in the seventh inning, caught a fly ball in right field, and then left the game in the eighth after suffering a left knee injury in a collision with Jose Altuve. His season debut lasted only four outs. And he never played for the Astros again.

“I was part of that team,” Hernandez said, “for, like, hours.”

But that’s all it takes to get your very own World Series ring, and Hernandez happily accepted his Monday before the Toronto Blue Jays began a three-game set with the defending champs at Minute Maid Park.

“A lot of players have been in this game for a long time and they didn’t get the chance to win one,” Hernandez said. “I appreciate all the things that the Astros did for me. And for them to count me as a part of the team last year, even though I didn’t play a lot, or really at all, it’s a good feeling.”

Hernandez was dealt to the Blue Jays at the 2017 trade deadline, after spending the bulk of his season with Houston’s triple-A affiliate, the Fresno Grizzlies. And the 25-year-old’s career has taken off since.

He was a September call-up for the Blue Jays and played every day down the stretch, putting up a .908 OPS. He began his 2018 back in triple-A, and was expected to be only a brief injury replacement when he was recalled 14 games into the season.

But he’s hit so well — Hernandez leads all Blue Jays regulars with an .833 OPS — that he’s earned the right to stay, forcing his way into an everyday big-league role, something he wasn’t able to do during his time with the Astros.

Plate discipline remains an issue, as Hernandez is ending a quarter of his plate appearance with a strikeout. But his raw power — Hernandez has hit 21 homers in the 86 games since his September call-up — is undeniable.

“He’s showed as much power as anybody I’ve ever seen — easy power,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “I think he’s got the chance to be a star. When he does get in trouble, I think he expands the zone a little bit. But one thing I do notice is that because he hasn’t seen a lot of pitchers necessarily that he’s starting to face, when he sees them one or two times he’s pretty good at figuring out what they’re trying to do to him.

“And he’s a great dude, you know? One of the most respectful guys, a good guy, enjoys playing, and just shows up every day to play. I think he’s got a great personality to be a good hitter. He doesn’t ever panic. He’s just nice and relaxed. and I think that’s really going to benefit him.”

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Despite coming into his own with another organization, Hernandez says he owes a great debt to the Astros, who first signed him as an 18-year-old in 2011. Houston poured a wealth of time and resources into his development over the ensuing years, which allowed him to make his major-league debut with the Astros in 2016.

“All that I know about baseball I learned from this organization. They did a lot of things for me and I appreciate it a lot. I’m never going to forget what they did for me. They gave me the chance to grow as a player,” Hernandez said. “So, it feels good to be back and to play against the guys that I grew up with in baseball as a player and as a person. It’s going to be fun. I’m going to enjoy it.”

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Hernandez wasn’t the only Blue Jay receiving jewellery Monday as reliever Tyler Clippard was presented with his ring, as well. Clippard arrived with the Astros in a mid-August trade, joining his third team of 2017. He made 16 relief appearances down the stretch as Houston cruised to an AL West title, but was left off the Astros playoff roster for the entirety of the post-season.

That makes things a little bittersweet for Clippard. But he was with the team throughout its October run, taking part in each celebration and a World Series parade. And, as a veteran of 12 MLB seasons, Clippard knows how rare an opportunity to be part of a team like that is.

“I was smiling all the way to the ballpark today just knowing what that means. It’s something that I’m going to cherish forever,” Clippard said. “Obviously I wanted to be more a part of that post-season run. But a ring’s a ring. And I felt like I had some good contributions to the team. It was a fun run, I was excited just to be around it. So, I’ll be wearing the ring proudly.”

Clippard had a tough 2017, and the 6.43 ERA he posted over 14 innings for the Astros is part of the reason why he didn’t get a chance to pitch in the post-season. But he credits the organization with helping him overcome his struggles.

After making a series of adjustments in Houston, Clippard finished his season with five consecutive scoreless outings. He’s carried that success over into 2018, putting up a 3.13 ERA over 39 appearances for the Blue Jays, who signed him to a minor-league deal during spring training.

“It was a good combination of me going through some struggles and knowing that there was something not right, asking a lot of questions, and the [Astros] giving me some information that I could use moving forward. That’s definitely helped me this year,” Clippard said. “It was just a fun group of guys to be around. A super impressive group with extreme talent throughout the whole clubhouse. It was just a fun time.”

And what would Gibbons be thinking as he watched Hernandez and Clippard collect their rings?

“I wish we had one,” he said with a laugh. “Hey, that’s really neat for those guys.”

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On the mend

Top Blue Jays prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has begun hitting off a tee and playing catch as he continues recovering from a patellar tendon strain in his left knee. He still has about a week to go before the injury is re-evaluated, but his return to baseball activities is nevertheless a good sign.

Guerrero was setting double-A on fire with a .407/.457/.667 line through his first 53 games of the season before he was shut down with the injury.

Meanwhile, Aaron Sanchez continues to recover from the contusion he suffered on his right index finger. Sanchez has experienced a decrease in swelling and discomfort, and could begin playing catch sometime in the coming days. Fellow injured starter Jaime Garcia, who is dealing with a shoulder issue, has yet to begin throwing.

Reliever Danny Barnes has reported to the Blue Jays facility in Dunedin, Fla. to continue his rehab from left knee tendinitis. He’ll be limited to long toss until his symptoms subside, at which point he can begin throwing off a mound.

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