Friday, March 8, 2013

Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez 15 Years Later

 15 years ago on March 7, amid fanfare the New York Yankees signed Cuban defector Orlando Hernandez, who is the half-brother of Livan Hernandez. The man known as "El Duque" would live up to his reputation from his playing days in Cuba by successfully pitching in 4 different World Series (1998, 1999, 2000 with the Yankees 2005 with the White Sox).

I remember when the Yankees signed him, there were some reservations among fans who were still thinking about the mass media signing of another foreign "can't miss" pitcher Hideki Irabu who didn't live up to the expectations placed on him here in New York. Not only did El Duque succeed during the regular season, his performances in the post season place him up there with many of the best.

After defecting from Cuba on Christmas Day 1997, Hernandez signed a 4-year $6.6 million dollar deal with the Yankees. After a number of starts in single-A and a handful of starts in AAA Columbus, El Duque made his debut with the Yankees on June 3, 1998. Against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, El Duque held the Devil Rays to five hits and one run over seven innings. In the Yankee record season of 114-48, El Duque compiled a 12-4 record with 3.13 ERA placing 4th in the American League Rookie of the Year Vote. In a sign of things to come in the post-season, Hernandez neutralized the only team that could stop the Yankees in 1998, the Cleveland Indians.

In Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, El Duque hurled strong seven shoutout innings where he only allowed three hits. The Yankees would tie the series at 2-2 and eventually win the series in 6 games. El Duque would also pitch a masterful game against the San Diego Padres in Game Two of the World Series pitching seven innings of one run baseball. The Yankees would sweep the Padres for the first of three consecutive World Series and four of five (including 1996).

1999 would prove to be El Duque's most successful season. El Duque made 33 starts compiling an impressive 17-9 record with a 4.12 ERA. He would be even more impressive in the post-season when he started four games and finished with a 4-0 record in which he only allowed just four earned runs in 30 innings pitched including winning two games in the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox. In Game One of the World Series, El Duque would be matched up against Greg Maddux who finished the season with another 19-win season. In that game, El Duque out-dueled Maddux by strucking out ten while just allowing one hit to beat the Braves and start a four game sweep and a second consecutive World Series title for the Yankees.

His 2000 campaign would be disappointing with a 12-13 record with a 4.51 ERA in 29 starts but El Duque kept his best for the post-season. In four starts, El Duque went 3-1 losing his first post-season start against the Mets. In the 2000 post-season, El Duque beat the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners (twice). In total, El Duque would strikeout a total of 31 batters in 29.2 innings pitched during all four playoff starts.

In the postseasons during the Yankee three-peat years of 1998-2000, El Duque El Duque was 2-0 and 0.64 ERA in 1998, 3-0 with a 1.20 ERA in 1999 and  3-1 with a 3.94 ERA in 2000. Truly remarkable.

Injuries would be the downfall for El Duque. From 2001-2002, El Duque would go 12-12 with a 4.11 ERA in 41 total games. In five postseason appearances during 2001-2002, El Duque would go 2-3 for the Yankees as the Championship run came to an end. At the end of the 2002 season, El Duque would be traded to the Chicago White Sox then traded again to the Montreal Expos for the 2003 season but would not pitch for them. He would miss the entire 2003 season with shoulder injuries.

He would return to the Yankees for the 2004 season and after being granted free agency, El Duque signed with the Chicago White Sox. Though his season performance was a somewhat lackluster 9-9 with a 5.12 ERA, El Duque saved his last bit of magic for the American League Division Series against the World Series Champions Boston Red Sox. With the Red Sox down 2-0 in Fenway Park trailing the White Sox 4-3 but seemingly reaching into the bag of miracles, El Duque was brought in from the bullpen by manager Ozzie Guillen. Facing El Duque was bases loaded with NO outs and Red Sox Captain Jason Varitek at the plate. I remember the day vividly. I was working at Fraunces Tavern and we were full to the brim with people watching the game.

Varitek would pop out. Tony Graffanino would line out to shortstop Juan Uribe and in arguably his most important post-season strikeout, El Duque made Johnny Damon miss ball four with a check swing that would have tied the game had Damon been able to hold his swing. El Duque would pitch two more innings for the Chisox, striking out a total of four batters leading the White Sox to a three game sweep of the Champs and setting the tone for the White Sox breaking their own World Series drought when they would eventually beat the Angels in 5-games and the Houston Astros in a four game sweep to bring the World Series trophy to the South Side of Chicago for the first time since 1917.

El Duque would pitch for a couple of more years before he would be released by the Texas Rangers during the 2010 season effectively ending his career. In total, El Duque would finish with 90-65 record with a career 4.13 ERA. In the postseason, El Duque went 9-3 with a 2.55 ERA 107 strikeouts in 106 innings pitched with four World Series titles to his name. El Duque was definitely something special to watch with his high socks and his high leg kick.

Gracias para las memorias Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez.

FH

- Click Here to Access Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez's career statistics from Baseball Reference.com

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