With COVID-19 behind him, Blue Jays' Hernandez makes triumphant return

Teoscar Hernandez hit a three-run home run in his return to the Blue Jays lineup after battling COVID-19 as Toronto's bats came alive in a 13-5 win over the Atlanta Braves.

Teoscar Hernandez and his pregnant wife, Jennifer, tried to do everything right. They stayed in as much as possible; kept their distance in public. When Hernandez travelled to Arlington with the Toronto Blue Jays early in the season, where the Texas Rangers were hosting a packed house of 38,238 mostly unmasked fans for their home opener, Jennifer stayed back in Dunedin.

But COVID-19 still found its way in, as Jennifer picked up the virus somewhere along the way early this month, and ultimately infected Teoscar and the couple’s son, Teoscar Jr., too. Everyone’s healthy and recovered now, thankfully. But it was a rough three weeks. And Hernandez feeling he’d let his teammates down didn’t help it go any quicker.

“It wasn’t a happy moment. It wasn’t happy days,” Hernandez said. “We tried to not go out and do things like normal people do. Just to be safe. And [to] not [be] thinking all of it is about me — thinking about my teammates and all of the organization, all the hard work that they've been putting in so we can get into the season and nobody gets sick.

“But things happen in life. And now that we’re living with COVID, and how easily you can get it — it was sad. It was sad and disappointing for my part. But the support from my teammates was excellent. They were on it every day. They were asking me how I feel, when I’d start to practice again, all that stuff. And they're really happy to see me back — and I’m even more happy to be back with them.”

It certainly looked like it. Friday, Hernandez was one of five Blue Jays to go deep during a 13-5 mollywhopping of the Atlanta Braves. His long ball came in the sixth inning — a 427-foot rocket to dead centre. But the game was already well out of hand by then, as Bo Bichette, Randal Grichuk, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Alejandro Kirk (twice) joined him in teeing off on Braves pitching. It was all in support of a 6.2-inning, two-run Robbie Ray gem — his strongest start as a Blue Jay.

With George Springer reaching base four times batting lead-off, Hernandez providing thump in the clean-up spot with a pair of hits, and Kirk crushing no-doubt homers of 428 and 435-feet out of the nine-hole, the Blue Jays batting order looked like the deep, relentless one many envisioned it to be entering the season. And after 23 games of underwhelming offensive production — the Blue Jays scored as many runs Friday as they did in four games against the Kansas City Royals two weekend’s ago — it’s a welcome development.

“It feels incredible,” Kirk said, through interpreter Hector Lebron, of welcoming Springer and Hernandez back into the batting order after extended absences. “They both are great, great hitters. The lineup from top to bottom, it looks good. It feels good. And we showed it tonight.”

Of course, what’s most important is that Hernandez and his young family are healthy after battling a virus that’s killed nearly 600,000 in the United States, and over three million worldwide. The Blue Jays outfielder experienced symptoms for several days, including body pain, headaches, and fever. Fortunately, all three of the Hernandez’s have since tested negative.

“It was bad for four or five days,” said Hernandez, who received his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine this week. “But I made it through.”

Once he recovered from the illness, Hernandez began working to regain his conditioning with a set of resistance bands and strength equipment at his home. The Blue Jays dropped off a net, a tee, and a bucket of baseballs so he could hone his swing. He watched every game the team played from afar, counting down the days until he was eligible to return.

“I was doing the best that I can just to get my body in a position so I can get back to playing,” Hernandez said. “I'm not going to get the timing that I want in a couple of days. It’s going to take time. But I feel like I'm ready to come back and try to find that — and try to help my team.”

When we last saw him, Hernandez was still searching for his early-season rhythm at the plate. After coming up with three hits on opening day — including a 437-foot bomb off Gerrit Cole — the 28-year-old went 3-for-his-next-25, striking out in more than half his plate appearances. That’s obviously a microscopic sample — and it would’ve taken only one more game like opening day to make Hernandez’s early-season results look much more impressive. But it’s certainly not the way he wanted to begin following up his breakout 2020.

Hernandez, as you no doubt remember, was a force last season, finally fulfilling the all-star calibre promise his quick-twitch bat speed and high-octane exit velocities had long suggested was possible. Playing his fifth MLB season as a 27-year-old, Hernandez hit .289/.340/.579 with a 143 wRC+ over 50 games, flirting with the MLB-lead in home runs before a late-season oblique strain cut his campaign short. That didn’t stop him from winning his first Silver Slugger award and receiving MVP votes, deserved recognition following a season in which he finished second to Hyun Jin Ryu on the Blue Jays’ WAR leaderboard.

Of course, there were small-sample questions to be asked about how sustainable Hernandez’s breakout was, considering he played only a third of the games he would in a normal season. Everyone’s seen him go on hot streaks before. In 2019, over a 42-game stretch from the beginning of July through mid-August, Hernandez put up a .960 OPS with 13 homers. But in his 42 games prior to that run — sandwiching a minor-league demotion — Hernandez’s OPS was .584 with only six long balls.

And there was little indication Hernandez was doing much differently from a process perspective. He was chasing pitches and whiffing just as much as he did earlier in his career, if not a little bit more often. He wasn’t being pitched differently and he was hitting balls both on the ground and in the air at similar rates.

His 93.3-m.p.h. average exit velocity was the fifth highest in baseball — but he’d always hit the ball hard. And although he’d cut down his strikeout rate a bit, he was still taking one in over 30 per cent of his plate appearances, well above the league average of 23.4 per cent.

Hernandez was just seeing better results — for one reason or another. And that’s what made him such an interesting player to track entering 2021. There were questions to be answered. Was he doing something differently that wasn’t materializing in his peripheral numbers over 50 games? Could he sustain his success over a full season? Was the breakout real?

Those questions still stand, of course. And now that he’s over his illness, Hernandez will get the next five months to start answering them. But it will take some time to play out. Considering the disruption to his season, and the lasting effects a COVID-19 bout can have on athletes, no one ought to be reacting too strongly one way or the other to his immediate results over the next several weeks.

Hernandez was at least able to get a taste of game-like velocity and spin at Toronto’s alternate site over the last several days, taking live batting practice against Blue Jays pitchers and getting into a scrimmage against a Miami Marlins side. But that’s no substitute for the pressure and intensity of a major-league game. And there’s no telling how long it’ll take Hernandez — or, for that matter, Springer, who’s just returned from oblique and quad issues himself — to get up to speed.

“Yeah, it's tough to tell — because with these guys, like Springer, it's tough to expect them to come in and start hitting a lot because they haven't played in a while,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “But they're healthy. So, that's number one. And I think that the more they play, the more the lineup is going to get better. So, when that's going to happen, it could be any day. But it's great to see Teoscar back and Springer in the lineup.”

Meanwhile, somewhat buried in the news of Hernandez’s return was the player removed from Toronto’s 40-man roster to make room for him — Tanner Roark, who was designated for assignment.

It was only 16 months ago that the Blue Jays inked Roark to a two-year, $24-million contract after the club missed out on a string of preferred starting pitching targets on the free agent market. As Roark was coming off three consecutive seasons of almost exactly league-average production — he pitched to a 99 ERA+ over 94 games from 2017 through 2019 — it was a fair enough bet that the veteran right-hander could at least continue to hum along at somewhere north of replacement level as he neared his mid-30’s.

But even that was a struggle, as evidenced by the 64 ERA+ and -0.6 fWAR Roark posted over 11 starts last season, which coincided with alarming peripheral number trends such as a decreasing strikeout rate, increasing walk rate, and skyrocketing home run rate. Add in the fact Roark lost at least a mile-and-a-half of velocity on each of his pitches from 2019 to 2020 and there was little reason for optimism.

The one thing you could say for the 34-year-old was that 2020 was a strange year that impacted players in strange ways. Maybe, with the benefit of a normal off-season and full spring training, Roark could rebound and look more like the dependable innings-eater who produced the 3.83 career ERA he carried into 2021.

Turns out, the answer to that question was no — he could not. Roark was borderline uncompetitive in his first start of the season against the Texas Rangers and immediately relegated to long relief. Two so-so outings later, he’s no longer on the club’s 40-man roster and likely to be released.

Considering the Blue Jays have been day-to-day with their rotation for weeks, are currently carrying only two healthy starters, will be throwing a bullpen day on Saturday, and haven’t yet announced a Sunday starter, the club’s willingness to jettison a veteran arm with a $12-million salary is damning.

Of course, the club was seeing what the rest of us were when Roark was on the mound this season. Evidently, they didn’t have much reason to expect improvement in his performance. And this move is another indication that the club is now running more of a major-league meritocracy than in years past, building on the decision to release Shun Yamaguchi (owed $3.175-million in 2021) this February and to carry Alejandro Kirk over Reese McGuire as the club’s second catcher out of spring training.

Ultimately, it came down to performance. And Roark’s wasn’t good enough.

“During spring training, we saw him kind of coming back and doing better. But he just couldn't carry it into the season,” Montoyo said. “And we felt like it was time to make a change.”

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