Butterflies got the best of Carlos Hernandez during his first South Atlantic League test, but, with a composed tempo on the rubber, he passed the second with flying colors.
The Royals' No. 12 prospect allowed one hit and matched his career high with nine strikeouts over five innings Saturday as Class A Lexington blanked Greenville, 6-0, at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. Hernandez struggled in his full-season debut a week ago, yielding five runs -- three earned -- on two hits and four walks in 2 1/3 frames against Charleston.
Video: Hernandez picks up ninth K for Lexington
"In his first outing, he was kind of amped up and kind of rushing through his delivery and trying to throw the ball as hard as he could -- there weren't many quality pitches in his first outing," Legends pitching coach Mitch Stetter said. "Tonight, he really slowed things down, he stayed in his delivery. His fastball was explosive and down in the zone. He had a lot of swings and misses with it. It was really impressive [for him] to make that adjustment and come out tonight and have that game that he did."
After throwing 52 percent of his pitches for strikes in his previous outing, the Venezuela native threw 42 of 62 in the zone Saturday. Hernandez also limited solid contact for most of the night, with only two balls leaving the infield during his five frames. A tweak in his motion led to stronger results in his second go-around.
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"We tried to stay back a little bit over the rubber," the pitching coach said. "He was kind of drifting through his first game, he was too amped up and excited and couldn't stay back. He stayed back well tonight and got the ball down, and that's what we were looking for."
In the Rookie-level Appalachian League last season, the right-hander went 1-4 with a 5.49 ERA and 1.46 WHIP across 62 1/3 innings.
The 6-foot-4, 175-pound hurler set the tone right away Saturday by striking out the side in the first on 14 pitches. Leading off the second, Victor Acosta banged a single back up the middle. Up next, Zach Sterry whiffed on five pitches and Acosta was erased at second trying to steal on catcher Sebastian Rivero. Jagger Rusconi fanned to end the inning.
"[Rivero] really helped him out tonight to keep the ball down in the zone, especially early in the count," Stetter said. "It helped him out pretty good. His fastball, anytime he went for a strikeout, it was 96, 97 [mph] -- it was explosive. He had nine strikeouts tonight, seven of them on fastballs and almost all of the strikeouts were at 96, 97. Guys had a tough time catching up to it tonight."
After Hernandez set down seven in a row, Acosta reached to open the fifth after shortstop Matt Morales made an errant throw to first. Without skipping a beat, the Lexington starter got Sterry to ground into a forceout, Rusconi to fly to left and Kervin Suarez to pop to short.
Hernandez kept his mechanics consistent even when he had to deal with traffic on the bases, which Stetter thinks is a positive sign for his development.
"That's big. Whenever you're cruising along and you do get a baserunner and you haven't been in the stretch very much after throwing a lot out of the windup," Stetter said. "So he went into the stretch and did a nice job in the stretch as well. You always worry about that when you're cruising through and you haven't been in the stretch very much and you get a guy on.
"It was just a good night all-around, he didn't let the error affect him, stayed the course and finished up a solid five innings"
With the scoreless effort, Hernandez dropped his ERA by more than eight runs to 3.68. He had a five-inning cap Saturday, but the team plans to progressively build up his pitch count in hopes of lengthening his starts. Knowing that Hernandez wields a 60-grade fastball, Stetter said he wouldn't be surprised if the young arm rises through the system quickly.
"I would say [the plan] is to develop all three of his pitches," Stetter said. "He had a good curveball tonight, he threw some good changeups, they were just a bit off the plate, arm-side to left-handed hitters. But he's got two pretty good off-speed pitches and it's just continuing to develop those. And also stay in his delivery the best he can and repeat his delivery and just control his fastball.
"Obviously, if he can do those three things, you're going to have success. He's here, I don't know how fast he'll move, he's got the chance to move quick through the system with a fastball like that and a couple of good off-speed pitches that we're going to continue to develop."
Holden Capps followed with three scoreless frames, allowing two hits and fanning three. Sal Biasi worked around a leadoff single in the ninth to preserve the Legends' first shutout of the season.
On the offensive side, Rivero and third-ranked Royals prospect Seuly Matias crushed solo homers for Lexington.