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."

Best of MLB: Eric Thames hits league-leading 11th home run in Brewers' win vs. Reds

Best of MLB: Eric Thames hits league-leading 11th home run in Brewers' win vs. Reds

MILWAUKEE -- Eric Thames hit his major league-leading 11th home run -- his sixth against Cincinnati this season -- and the Milwaukee Brewers cruised to a 9-1 victory over the Reds on Tuesday night.

In his first season with the Brewers, Thames capped a five-run sixth with a two-run drive off reliever Robert Stephenson.

Hernan Perez had a pair of RBI triples, then homered off Stephenson leading off the sixth, and Jonathan Villar had a pair of two-run singles.

Zach Davies (2-2) allowed six hits in five scoreless innings, lowering his ERA from 8.24 to 6.57. He stranded a pair of runners in three innings (see full recap).

Keuchel tosses complete game in Astros' win over Indians
CLEVELAND -- Dallas Keuchel pitched a complete game to extend his promising start to the season and the Houston Astros beat the Cleveland Indians 4-2 Tuesday night even though Jose Altuve and Teoscar Hernandez left following a frightening collision in the eighth inning.

Altuve and Hernandez were chasing a popup in right field and stayed down for a while after. Altuve appeared to get hit near his chin by Hernandez's arm, but he walked off the field under his own power. Hernandez, called up from the minors before the game, was carted off the field with an injury to his left leg.

Keuchel (4-0) gave up solo homers to Austin Jackson in the third and Michael Brantley in the ninth. The left-hander, who won the AL Cy Young Award in 2015, held Cleveland to six hits and has a 1.22 ERA.

Josh Tomlin (1-3) allowed three runs -- all in the fifth -- in six innings (see full recap).

Tigers score 9 in 9th to rout Mariners, 19-9
DETROIT -- James McCann, Justin Upton and Alex Avila homered for Detroit -- and that was before the Tigers added nine runs in the fifth inning en route to a 19-9 rout of the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday night.

Felix Hernandez (2-2) allowed four runs in two innings in his shortest outing since 2015, and Seattle's next two pitchers fared even worse. Detroit finished with 24 hits, 19 of which came in the first five innings. That was despite injuries that kept Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez and Jose Iglesias out of the lineup.

Jordan Zimmermann (2-1) allowed five runs in six innings. Jean Segura, Danny Valencia and Nelson Cruz hit solo homers for Seattle, but that wasn't nearly enough to keep up with Detroit's offensive onslaught.

Mikie Mahtook added another home run for the Tigers in the eighth. Ian Kinsler had four hits and four runs before being lifted for a pinch hitter in the seventh (see full recap).

Nick Pivetta excited for big-league debut — even if rainout delays it a few days

Nick Pivetta excited for big-league debut — even if rainout delays it a few days

The Phillies' starting pitching rotation, for the time being, features four arms that were acquired in trades that have coincided with the team's rebuild, which started after the 2014 season.

Nick Pivetta will become the latest to join the group when he is officially activated. He was in the Phillies' clubhouse Tuesday afternoon and was scheduled to pitch on Wednesday, but those plans changed when Tuesday night's game against the Miami Marlins was postponed because of rain.

No makeup date was announced.

The rainout means Pivetta's big-league debut will be pushed back. Vince Velasquez, Tuesday's scheduled starter, will pitch Wednesday night against the Marlins and Jeremy Hellickson will start the series finale Thursday. Jerad Eickhoff and Zach Eflin are likely to stay on turn and pitch Friday and Saturday in Los Angeles. That means Pivetta's debut will likely happen Sunday afternoon at Dodger Stadium. Not a bad venue for an unveiling. He does not have to be activated until that day. In the interim, the Phils are carrying an extra reliever in Mark Leiter Jr.

Even with the weather-related change in plans, Pivetta was thrilled to be in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

"I've achieved my goal of getting here eventually," the 24-year-old right-hander said. "I'm happy to be here. I want to get my feet on solid ground right now and just take it one step at a time."

Pivetta is a Canadian from Victoria, British Columbia, about 100 miles northwest of Seattle. As a kid, he watched Toronto Blue Jays' games on television and idolized Roy Halladay.

Victoria must now be Phillies territory. Michael Saunders, the team's rightfielder, also hails from the town.

"You see it more and more, more Canadians getting into the game of baseball, so it's always nice to see another one in the locker room," said Saunders, 30. "Clearly he's pitched well enough to earn his way up here and I'm looking forward to seeing him play."

Pivetta is 6-5, 225 pounds. He was originally selected by the Washington Nationals in the fourth round of the 2013 draft. The Phillies acquired him for Jonathan Papelbon and cash in July 2015.

Pivetta will take Aaron Nola's spot in the rotation. Nola is on the disabled list with tightness in his lower back. He could be back as soon as early next week.

Nola said he probably could have pushed himself and stayed in the rotation, but the team chose to be cautious.

"I don't think it's any big thing," Nola said.

With Pivetta on board, the Phillies now have four pitchers in their rotation that came over in "rebuild" trades.

Eflin arrived in the December 2014 deal that sent Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers.

Eickhoff came in the July 2015 deal that sent Cole Hamels to the Rangers.

Velasquez came in the December 2015 trade that sent Ken Giles to the Astros.

Pivetta did not immediately pitch well upon joining the Phillies organization. He had a 7.31 ERA in seven starts for Double A Reading in the summer of 2015. In 28 1/3 innings, he struck out 25 and walked 19.

Pivetta was a different pitcher last season. He registered a 3.27 ERA in 148 2/3 innings between Double A and Triple A, struck out 138 and walked 51. That performance earned him a spot on the team's 40-man roster.

"In 2016, he showed us the potential to be a really good major-league pitcher," said Joe Jordan, the Phillies' director of player development. "He was a little excitable after the trade in 2015, but he came back calm and confident last year. His stuff is legit — 93 to 96 (mph) with life on the fastball, good breaking ball and good feel for the changeup."

His control continued to improve this season as he got off to a 3-0 start at Triple A. He pitched 19 innings, gave up just two earned runs, walked just two and struck out 24.

"Just getting ahead with my fastball," said Pivetta, explaining the early-season success that put him in line for the promotion. "First-pitch strikes are big. Even if I get into that 0-1 count or that 1-1 count, getting back to that 1-2 count is big. So being able to even up those counts have been really big for me, as well, and being able to finish off with my off-speed later in the counts, too."

Pivetta pitched for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic in March. He made one start and took a no-decision in the team's 4-1 loss to Columbia. Pivetta worked four innings and allowed one run.

"That helped me," Pivetta said. "It was awesome. It was like having playoff baseball in March."

It's not clear how long Pivetta will stay in the big-league rotation. But he has more than put himself on the map, and if he continues to pitch well, he'll make more starts with the big club this season.

"I did not expect to be here this early in the season," he said. "I am happy to be here right now. I'll see how long I stay and just have fun while I am here."