TORONTO – Three weeks ago, the Toronto Blue Jays sent Teoscar Hernandez to triple-A Buffalo to find his rhythm at the plate. While there, he also found a new position in the field, which just happened to be his old position defensively.
In his return to the majors Wednesday, Hernandez looked like a new man, with a toe-tap trigger and his hands lower at the plate, smooth, steady and more assertive with the glove despite the additional responsibilities of centre field.
"I’m not thinking I’m back, or anything like that," Hernandez said in an interview after collecting a pair of hits, including a key two-run double, in a heartening 11-7 win over the New York Yankees. "I’m trying to have some fun. That was missing in the beginning of the season. Now I’m going to go out there and enjoy the game and play hard."
That he did, validating some of the faith shown in him by general manager Ross Atkins, who hours earlier raised eyebrows when he said Hernandez taking over as the club’s primary centre-fielder was "the most likely scenario."
The plan seemed to have come out of nowhere. At no point had the Blue Jays mentioned that they hoped to bring Hernandez back up as the centre-fielder. Randal Grichuk had done the heavy lifting there since Kevin Pillar was traded to the San Francisco Giants in the season’s first week, with Jonathan Davis a distant second in games played in centre at 17 before he was demoted to make room.
Hernandez, however, had played centre in 443 of his 688 games in the minor leagues. "The objective information is very good there," said Atkins. "Subjectively, we’ve seen the ability for him to do that. Getting comfortable again there, that’s why we sent him down to triple-A to do it on a more regular basis. I would expect the run tool to play there. He’s as fast as Mookie Betts and has the ability to do it. It’s just the assertiveness and the aggressiveness that’s where the development opportunity is."
Against the Yankees, that wasn’t an issue. Hernandez coolly chased down a Cameron Maybin smash to the warning track to end the third. In the sixth, he sped in to collect a Maybin single to centre and came up ready to throw in case Clint Frazier had any thoughts of going first to third on the play. Wisely, he did not.
How did being in centre feel for Hernandez?
"Normal. That was my position coming up to the big leagues," he said. "If you have most of your career in the corner and then you move to centre, you’re going to be uncomfortable. That’s what happened to me. When I was here playing left field, that was new for me. I never played in the corners [very much]. That was a challenge. I was working, trying to give it my best every play, doing practice every day.
"Being back there in Buffalo, it was like going back and everything was going to be good. I’ve got that feeling now."
The same goes at the plate. At the time of his demotion, Hernandez was hitting .189/.262/.299 in 141 plate appearances, striking out 42 times. He’d hit only three home runs. Often, he looked lost.
Working with Bisons hitting coach Corey Hart, he got himself right. Freed of the big league’s demand for production, he felt he had "the freedom to work on what I needed to do. My rhythm was not on time. It was all over."
To correct it, Hernandez made a couple of adjustments. First, he dropped his hands, from high behind his head to just below the shoulder height. Then he got rid of the small leg lift he used to start his swing, moving to a quick toe-tap instead. He quickly regained his rhythm, which led to more confidence.
"If you don’t have the rhythm, you don’t have your approach, you don’t have your timing, you don’t have anything," explained Hernandez. "You’re always going to feel late for pitches, you’re not going to see any spin on it. That was the key."
In the second, he worked Canadian James Paxton for seven pitches before ripping the eighth for a double. Moments later Cavan Biggio cashed him in. In the seventh, he hit another double, this one plating a pair of runs that cut a Yankees lead to 7-6. Some sloppy defence allowed him to reach third. Once safe, he pumped his fist in glee.
"He was really good," said manager Charlie Montoyo. "His approach was really good. Because all the guys in the clubhouse like him so much, everybody was pulling for him, everybody was so happy with the base hits he got. It was awesome to watch for me."
Added starter Trent Thornton: "He looked great. Two hits, played really good defence – that’s why he’s here, because he’s good. He was a big part of our win today."
VLAD DELIVERS: As well as Hernandez played, the key blow was a three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the first late-inning heroics drive he’s delivered in his career. His seventh homer of the season came off Zach Britton.
"Even if hit a home run in the first inning, it feels great," Guerrero said through translator Hector Lebron. "I just tried to do my best to help the team win."
He did that by following up a Danny Jansen single and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., walk by turning on a 95.3 m.p.h. sinker from the left-hander and launching it at 109.9 m.p.h. off the bat over the wall in centre field.
That put the Blue Jays up 9-7 and after back-to-back homers from Randal Grichuk and Brandon Drury extended the lead, they cruised to a second straight win over the Yankees.