PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — He refuses to consider the pressure. He insists he’s kept it simple: control what he can, work over hitters and wash, rinse, repeat the process … then wait.
Roberto Hernandez, formerly Fausto Carmona, would rather let his right arm do the talking this spring.
Roberto Hernandez, an eighth-year veteran fighting for a spot on the Tampa Bay Rays’ rotation, would rather avoid distraction.
“I only try to work hard like I’ve been doing,” said Hernandez, 32, suspended three weeks last July as a member of the Cleveland Indians because of age and identity fraud. “I don’t think about that. … I never like to put too much pressure on myself. I continue to work. I don’t make the decision.”
The decision is manager Joe Maddon’s to make, of course, and Hernandez’s clock began ticking Saturday. The Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, native started in the Rays’ 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates in their split-squad spring training opener at Charlotte Sports Park — brushing aside Starling Marte and Alex Presley and Travis Snider in 12 pitches — and he left others to interpret the meaning of his lone inning.
An early read: A possible competition between Hernandez and right-hander Jeff Niemann to slide into the back of the rotation could be of the neck-and-nose variety. Both can and will show more in the coming weeks, as the stakes rise and the calendar flips closer to Opening Day.
Consequently, this could be a scenario where a rising tide lifts both boats. Hernandez signed a one-year deal in December, worth $3.25 million, to provide depth after he spent seven seasons with the Indians. He was limited to a career-low 14.1 innings last year because of a right ankle injury. Meanwhile, Niemann only threw 38 innings last year because of health issues, including a broken right leg and shoulder problems.
They are two men with two different approaches. Between them, though, there are many possible lessons.
“The biggest thing that we’ve gotten out of him so far is that he fits right in,” Niemann, 29, told FOXSportsFlorida.com about Hernandez. “Great guy. Easy to talk to. One of us now. … I think I have a pretty good two-seam, and when it’s going down like that, it’s good. To see his, it’s one of those things you just kind of watch and see what he’s doing to make the ball do certain things and see if I can apply that to myself.”
There will be more opportunities to learn. Niemann fared well Saturday, striking out Garrett Jones and Brad Hawpe. He also forced Pedro Alvarez to ground out in the second in his only inning of work.
Maddon’s postgame praise fit in the too-close-to-call category. He said Hernandez’s fastball had solid movement and that Niemann showed deception with his split.
So how will Hernandez’s role come into focus? For now, the picture appears too fuzzy to know.
“This will be one that you do watch a little more closely,” Maddon said of Hernandez and Niemann on Saturday morning before the game. “I can’t deny that. … Things happen during camp, and you have no idea how that’s going to shake. Roberto and Jeff, you’ll have to watch pretty closely.”
A tale of the tape shows benefits of both. Hernandez owns a 4.64 ERA in 949 innings, and Niemann a 4.08 ERA in 544.1. Hernandez’s career record is 53-69 with 153 starts, and Niemann’s is 40-26 with 92. Hernandez has struck out 567 batters, and Niemann 409.
Hernandez offers a more seasoned arm, one that has pitched at least 210 innings in two campaigns (2007 and ’10). Niemann, meanwhile, offers comfort within the Rays’ culture, since the franchise chose him in the first round — fourth overall — in the 2004 draft.
“I felt good today, being down in the count,” Hernandez said, looking relaxed in a chair by his stall. “I wanted to make good pitches and get out of the inning quick.”
Mission complete. His was a solid start, and there’s something to be said for a fine first impression. Hernandez ended his day by wiping his brow as he approached the dugout, where designated hitter Luke Scott greeted him with a soft fist bump. Pats and hugs from others followed. This was the first exam of many more to come this spring.
Pressure? Forget it. Keeping life simple is Hernandez’s plan.
In the weeks ahead, he will learn where his approach leads.