Cesar Hernandez stakes his claim to second base job, wants to be Phillie for life

Cesar Hernandez stakes his claim to second base job, wants to be Phillie for life

One of the lasting impressions from Phillies spring training was that the organization is in pretty good shape at second base.

Scott Kingery was the star of the first two weeks of Grapefruit League play. He made eye-popping plays in the field and hit .286 with a .400 on-base percentage and a .619 slugging percentage in 25 plate appearances. Before sending Kingery over to the minor-league side, manager Pete Mackanin said, "It looks like he's on a fast track to the major leagues." Kingery is off to a great start at Double A Reading with three doubles, four homers and 12 RBIs in his first 32 at-bats.

After Kingery left, Jesmuel Valentin stepped up during the final two weeks of camp. He hit .366 with a .422 on-base percentage and a .512 slugging percentage in 45 plate appearances and was the last cut from the 25-man roster. Valentin opened the season at Triple A Lehigh Valley with 11 hits, five RBIs and a .412 on-base percentage in his first 10 games.

Kingery turns 23 later this month. Valentin turns 23 in May. The general consensus is that Kingery is the Phillies' second baseman of the future, but Valentin will have something to say about that.

And so will a young man named Cesar Hernandez.

Sometimes it's easy to forget that the Phillies' current second baseman is still quite young; he will turn 27 on May 23. And given his age and rate of improvement -- he's one of the most improved players in baseball since last June -- he just might be the Phillies' second baseman not only of the present but of the future, as well.

For Hernandez, there is no "might" about it.

"Me," he said the other day, jabbing himself in the chest when asked who the Phillies' second baseman of the future is.

"I want to be a Phillie for life."

***

It almost seems as if Hernandez has been a Phillie for life. He signed with the club in the summer of 2006, the same day the team signed another teenage infielder from Venezuela -- Freddy Galvis. Hernandez and Galvis are now in their third season as the Phillies' full-time double-play combination, but their relationship goes back a lot farther than that.

They first started playing against each other in national tournaments in Venezuela -- Hernandez is from the state of Carabobo, Galvis from Falcon -- when they were 12 and hosted each other in their family homes over the course of four summers for a week each time.

Any pillow fights?

"No," Hernandez said with a laugh. "We were too tired from being at the field, playing and practicing all day."

As kids, both players were shortstops. Hernandez recalled running into Galvis at a Phillies' tryout camp, but did not know his friend had signed with the Phillies until the day after he put his own name on a contract. Hernandez received a $49,000 bonus to sign with the Phillies. Galvis got $90,000. In 2017, Hernandez will make $2.55 million and Galvis $4.35 million.

Hernandez described his relationship with Galvis as "brotherly." That benefits them on the field.

"We can get a message across in a few words or just with our body language or with a look," Hernandez said. "It’s a very close relationship.

"It's incredible how things turned out to be. We met as kids and now we're playing together. It's incredible."

***

There was a time last season when Hernandez and Galvis did not play together.

Hernandez was hitting .249 with a .239 on-base percentage and driving Mackanin crazy with boneheaded base-running plays, wild swings and an inability to get on base when he was benched on June 21. Hernandez sat for two games and would have sat for more had he not been needed when Tommy Joseph needed a day. Hernandez got back in the lineup had four hits and a walk and was a different player the rest of the season.

After the benching until season's end, Hernandez hit .327 (13th-best in the majors over that span) with a .421 on-base percentage (fifth-best).

"Tough love," Mackanin said. "The benching was sort of the last piece of the puzzle. Enough was enough. He should be better. It was a proverbial slap in the face. But he took off from there. Hate me now, love me later."

Hernandez has admitted the benching shook him and got him to focus on the player the Phillies want him to be -- a line drive hitter who works counts and gets on base.

Hernandez has continued his ascension this season. He has been the Phillies' best player, hitting .346 with three doubles, a triple, three homers, a .393 on-base percentage and a majors-high 13 runs scored through Sunday.

Over the winter, Hernandez got in the weight room and added 15 pounds of muscle to his 5-10 frame. He is now 180 pounds and strong. He is hitting the ball harder. He has twice led off games this season with homers and hit a decisive two-run shot to break a 2-2 tie in the eighth inning and give the Phillies a 4-2 win in Washington on Saturday afternoon.

After that game, Mackanin commented that Hernandez had "turned into a really good major league player."

Those words would never have come out of Mackanin's mouth when he benched Hernandez last June.

When told of Mackanin's comment, Hernandez smiled.

"It makes me very happy to hear that," he said with the help of Diego Ettedgui, the Phillies' Spanish language translator. "That's what it's all about. You want to see your work pay off. The sacrifices that I've made are taking me places. If the results are showing that makes me happy. It is what I've worked for."

And there's no question Hernandez has worked. It shows not only in his body, but in the time he puts in with hitting coach Matt Stairs. Hernandez is a dedicated student.

"He's a very sound hitter," Stairs said. "He's the most underrated guy on the team right now. If he has a bad at-bat he comes and asks questions. He wants to learn.

"He does all his work in the cage. But he keeps it simple and that's what a good fastball hitter should do. From what I've seen, he's just become a more focused player.

"He's a tremendous player."

***

Focus. Work ethic. Confidence.

Whatever the reason for Hernandez' improvement, one has to wonder what role internal competition has played in it. Kingery and Valentin both had good seasons and began to gain buzz last year. They shared a clubhouse with Hernandez in spring training this year and Hernandez witnessed their abilities up close. He knows they are not far away. He knows some folks believe Kingery is the team's future at second base and he could become a trade chip. Heck, according to multiple sources, the Phillies received inquiries about Hernandez this past offseason and didn't exactly respond by saying he was an untouchable. It was more like the team put a high price tag on him because it sees what everyone else sees: A good young player who is getting better.

Hernandez was asked if Kingery and Valentin have given him a healthy push.

"Not really," he said. "That doesn’t motivate me. I live day by day and focus on my own stuff.

"I want to get better and help my team get better. I don't pay attention to what the minor leaguers are doing. I know there is talent there, but I have to focus on myself."

However you dissect it -- whether Hernandez is the present and future at second or whether he's cashed in for value on the trade market -- the Phillies are in pretty good shape at second base.

"We're fortunate to have guys like Kingery and Valentin, but at the same time we like the guy we have here a lot," Mackanin said. "I feel like you can win with this guy. It's a nice spot to be in."

Phillies conclude miserable homestand with new low as Zach Eflin demoted to Triple A

Phillies conclude miserable homestand with new low as Zach Eflin demoted to Triple A

BOX SCORE

For a moment Sunday afternoon, Citizens Bank Park sprung to life as the Phillies strung together five hits in a four-run second inning.

But four home runs off starter Zach Eflin sent the Phillies to another defeat and Eflin to Lehigh Valley.

Eflin was optioned to Triple A following the Phillies' 8-4 loss to the Reds, in which he allowed seven runs on nine hits in just five innings of work (see Instant Replay)

"His first two-three outings were really good," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He was keeping the ball down, but his last three, including today, he's elevating his sinker and once you elevate that sinker, it doesn't have the effect that you'd like to have."

The Phillies have now lost nine consecutive series for the first time since 1997. The loss was their 22nd in 28 games and handed the Reds their first series win at CBP since August 2006.  

Eflin got off to a rocky start Sunday with three first-inning singles, allowing one run. He escaped further damage but then proceeded to give up a home run in each of his final four innings. The final home run — Adam Duvall's second on the day — came on an 0-2 pitch and extended Cincinnati's lead to 7-4. All of the Reds' hits off Eflin came on fastballs as their potent lineup feasted on his pitches high in the zone.

Two weeks ago, Eflin's ERA stood at 2.87 as he kept opponents in the ballpark with his hard sinker. However, starting with a May 17 outing in Texas, Eflin has allowed 22 runs in his last 15 innings. He's given up seven homers in his last two starts and at least nine hits in five consecutive outings as his ERA ballooned to 6.13. With Sunday's results, the Phillies were left little choice but to option the 23-year-old righty while he deals with a rough patch.

"There are some things I need to work on," Eflin said. "I need to do a better job of pitching backward, especially in fastball counts. There's a lot of things I need to work on, but at the end of the day, I'm not worried about it. I'm going to go down there, work on everything I need to work on and get back as soon as possible."

The Phillies will reinstate Howie Kendrick (oblique) off the 10-day disabled list Monday, Mackanin said, in a corresponding move after the veteran IF/OF completed a four-game rehab stint (see story)

Kendrick could help boost an offense that is scuffling. After a four-run second inning highlighted by Andrew Knapp's 434-foot three-run home run, the Phillies' bats fell silent. They strung together five more hits. However, three double plays and a few untimely strikeouts killed any further rallies.

The Phillies left a potential run stranded on third base in the fifth inning as Odubel Herrera and Aaron Altherr struck out against starter Scott Feldman, who waded into and out of trouble in five innings of work. Herrera went 0 for 4 with that strikeout, continuing to slump. His average has fallen to .217.

With Kendrick returning, Mackanin indicated he would give Herrera some days off soon to help him relax amid mounting pressure to hit.

"He's scuffling. A couple guys scuffling," Mackanin said. "I'll probably move him down in the lineup. I can't keep him in the two-hole. But he has to fight his way out. 

"We'll see when Kendrick gets here. We're going to have another outfielder. I'm going to mix and match and try to get everybody in there. Kendrick, I'm going to bring along slowly because I want to make sure he's healthy.

"In other words, I don't have a set outfield. I'm going to mix those guys up."

On the infield, Maikel Franco continued his slide Sunday, going 1 for 4 with a strikeout and a double play. The slugger is hitting .213 this month, just as he did in April, but his power is down with just two home runs. Kendrick, who only played left field in April, played third base while at Triple A, so he could potentially spell Franco as well.

"He hit a ball hard today but he's not giving us consistent at-bats," Mackanin said. "He's searching both physically and mentally. It's not easy for him. I can tell he's down on himself. He's not happy about what's going on."

The Phillies came into this week struggling and were unable to rebound against the Rockies and Reds, losing five of seven. They averaged just 2.42 runs during the homestand.

However, the bigger problem comes in the rotation. The team gave up 5.71 runs per game in their last seven despite a 23 2/3 inning scoreless streak from the bullpen. The rotation's struggles continue to plague the team as they carry the worst record in baseball into Miami for a three-game set starting Monday.

"I certainly expected more out of our starters," Mackanin said. "We've had some issues with [Aaron] Nola's arm and Clay Buchholz going down. Although [Jerad] Eickhoff is going to end up having a good year in my opinion. He's been a little bit hot and cold.

"And Eflin, I counted on him to have a big year this year. I think if he gets himself straightened out down in Triple A, I think he's going to come back strong. But certainly, I can't sit here and say I'm happy with [his performance]."

Instant Replay: Reds 8, Phillies 4

Instant Replay: Reds 8, Phillies 4

BOX SCORE

Zach Eflin allowed a career-high four home runs and the Phillies were outslugged by the Cincinnati Reds in an 8-4 defeat Sunday at Citizens Bank Park.

The Phils have now lost nine consecutive series for the first time since 1997. The loss was their 22nd in 28 games. The Reds, who took two of three, picked up their first series win at CBP since August 2006.

Eflin was roughed up for the third consecutive start. The Reds tagged him for seven runs in just five innings. After three hits led to a run in the first inning, he gave up home runs in each of his last four frames. Following the game, Eflin was optioned to Triple A Lehigh Valley.

Jeanmar Gomez allowed a solo home run in relief. 

Andrew Knapp gave the Phillies an early lead with a three-run homer during a four-run second inning. However, three double plays stifled the Phillies' offense, which was held scoreless after the second inning. 

Scott Feldman improved to 4-4 with the win for the Reds. The Phils dropped to 17-31 while the Reds improved to 24-25. 

Starting pitching report
Eflin stumbled through five innings, allowing nine hits. He had held opponents to just four homers in first six starts but has now has let up seven in his last two appearances. Over his past three starts, Eflin's been tagged for 22 runs in 15 innings. He's given up at least nine hits in all five May starts. 

A poor sign for Eflin: Only two of his outs came on the ground. The Reds were all over his fastball and scored in each of his five innings. His ERA has gone from 2.81 to 6.13 since May 17.

Feldman labored through a 32-pitch second inning in which he gave up four runs. He settled down afterward with a pair of double plays to get through five innings. The veteran righty struck out the last two batters he faced with a man on third and one out.

Bullpen report
Luis Garcia threw two shutout innings, striking out one. Jeanmar Gomez gave up rookie Patrick Kivlehan's second home run of the day in the ninth inning, snapping the Phillies' bullpen's scoreless streak at 23 2/3 innings. Gomez allowed three hits and the one run in two innings.

Blake Wood, Wandy Peralta, Drew Storen and Raisel Iglesias each threw shutout innings in relief of Feldman.

At the plate
Manager Pete Mackanin wanted the Phillies to string together 4-5 hits and they did so in the second inning. Tommy Joseph and Michael Saunders led off with back-to-back singles before Knapp drove them in with his 434-foot blast. Knapp laid off two high fastballs after falling behind 0-2 and drilled a curveball into the Phillies' bullpen.

Freddy Galvis followed with a double. Even Eflin aided the cause with his first career RBI on a run-scoring single. 

The top two in the order — Cesar Hernandez and Odubel Herrera — went 0 for 8. Everyone else in the lineup had at least one hit. Saunders and Aaron Altherr each had two hits while Ty Kelly had a pinch-hit double.

Adam Duvall, Scott Schebler and Kivlehan combined for five home runs with Duvall and Kivlehan notching multi-hit games. Jose Peraza and Zack Cozart extended their hitting streaks to 13 and 11 games, respectively, in the first inning.

Up next
The Phillies head on the road and begin a three-game set with the Miami Marlins, whom they beat twice in April at Citizens Bank Park.

Monday, 7:10 p.m. — Jeremy Hellickson (5-2, 4.28) vs. Edinson Volquez (0-7, 4.82)

Tuesday, 7:10 p.m.— Vince Velasquez (2-4, 5.55) vs. Justin Nicolino (0-1, 5.40)

Wednesday, 1:10 p.m. — Aaron Nola (2-2, 4.34) vs. Dan Straily (3.83)