Y Así Que Empieza: El Duque debuts in OKC

Orlando Hernandez tossed a perfect eighth inning on Wednesday

Orlando Hernandez pitched in the RedHawks win over the Round Rock Express on June 24. (Mark Pritchard)

By Bob Hersom / okcredhawks.com | June 24, 2009 2:07 PM

El Duque looked like a man against boys Wednesday, when the former World Series ace made his Oklahoma City RedHawks pitching debut.

Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez made short work of three Round Rock batters, striking out the first two on eight pitches and retiring the third on a short fly to right field.

That popup was the only time an Express hitter made contact against the former New York Yankees star from Cuba, in his 1-2-3 inning.

"He changes arm angles, makes it tough on a hitter," RedHawks pitching coach Terry Clark said of El Duque, whose age has been reported as either 39 or 43. "He did that today and it looked like they had a real tough time swinging at it.

"And then they swang at some balls that were up in the zone and missed them. I want him to get down in the zone where he throws consistent strikes. His velocity should be even better if he's down in the zone. So we'll see how he does next time out."

Hernandez had been throwing in the RedHawks' bullpen and in batting practices for eight days. Wednesday he threw in a pro game for the first time since pitching one Double-A inning last July 17.

"I thought I threw great for my first time out," El Duque said. "I need to throw more in a game, though."

Hernandez will most likely get that chance again on Friday, when the RedHawks end their homestand with another game against Round Rock.

"He'll probably have a day off (Thursday) and then go right back out there again (Friday)," Clark said. "So, probably Friday. Not for sure, but we're probably looking at Friday."

The three batters El Duque mowed down Wednesday swung and missed at almost all of his pitches. He threw 11 of them, and eight were strikes.

"I threw my curveball, slider and fastball," El Duque said. "More fastball than any other pitch.

"I'm happy. I'm very happy. The pitching coach and everybody have helped me a lot."

Round Rock leadoff man Reggie Abercrombie, a .275 hitter, struck out on five pitches against Hernandez. Tommy Manzella, a .284 hitters, then fanned on three pitches. And Brian Bogusevic, a .280 hitter, popped out to shallow right on a 1-1 pitch.

"He threw strikes, and that's kind of what we expected, from all the reports from our scouts who have worked him out," said Scott Servais, the Texas Rangers' director of player development. "They said he's in good shape. Now we've just got to get him in a pitching routine and normal schedule."

Hernandez topped out at 89 mph on the RedHawks' speed gun. Seven of his 11 pitches were in the mid-to-high 80s.

"He did okay. I would have liked to have seen him down in the zone a little more," Clark said. "But he definitely had more velocity than I thought he was going to throw. I thought he was going to be 85, 86."

The batters El Duque fanned, Abercrombie and Manzella, have a combined 125 strikeouts in 539 at bats this season. Round Rock came into the game with a .259 team batting average, 14th in the 16-team Pacific Coast League.

Hernandez has had at least two surgeries on his right foot since his last major league season, in 2007. His obviously goal is to return to the big leagues.

"We'll see how it plays out," Servais said. "If he's one of our best 12 pitchers he'll be in the big leagues. If he's not, he won't."

Hernandez was a starting pitcher on four World Series championship teams from 1998-2005, including three straight New York Yankees teams, 1998-2000.

Less than a year after defecting from Cuba, he was fourth in American League Rookie of the Year voting in 1998, when he was 12-4. The following year he was 17-9, fifth in AL wins, and the ALCS Most Valuable Player.

His major league record is 90-65 over 11 seasons, with the Yankees, White Sox, Diamondbacks and Mets. He has been especially good in the postseason, going 9-3 with a 2.55 ERA.

Now, though, El Duque plans to be a relief pitcher for the first time in his 12 pro seasons.

"He did okay for the first time out there. He's ready to roll," Servais said. "He pitched today and he'll be part of the bullpen and we'll see what happens."

Hernandez last pitched in the major leagues on Sept. 30, 2007, and last won in the big leagues on Aug. 25, 2007, when he pitched the Mets to a 4-3 victory against the Dodgers.

In games against the Texas Rangers, El Duque has a 7-5 record and 4.75 ERA. He's been 83-60 with a 4.09 ERA in his other Major League games.

But that was when he was a starting pitcher; only nine of his 249 pro appearances have been in relief.

Asked if he was nervous Wednesday, El Duque said, "No nervous. A little pressure, but no nervous."

He was also asked about leaving six tickets for Wednesday's game - in the name of Fidel Castro, the infamous Cuban dictator who banned El Duque from playing baseball in his home country.

A grinning Hernandez declined to talk about leaving tickets Wednesday.

"No politics," he said. "Baseball. Baseball. I like baseball, man. I like baseball better."

Baseball liked El Duque, too, in his return to the game Wednesday.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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