PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — The time for a decision is drawing close, and right-hander Roberto Hernandez knows each outing with be inspected with careful attention. He remains in a race for the fifth rotation spot with right-hander Jeff Niemann, the innings for both gaining more importance with each day.
On Thursday, in the Tampa Bay Rays’ 3-1 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, Hernandez made his latest push for the job. His line: three hits, two strikeouts and one run after Colby Rasmus cracked a homer to right field in the top of the fifth inning. The start wasn’t spotless, but it wasn’t damaging either.
“Every game is very important for me,” Hernandez said. “Every opportunity that I have to go to the mound, every pitch is important for me. … I try to keep the ball down and make ground balls.”
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He did a fair job of it Thursday. Rays manager Joe Maddon praised Hernandez’s offering — “Everything was working,” Maddon said — and compliments were reserved for the pitcher’s changeup and slider.
Hernandez’s showing was part of a larger picture that has begun to come into focus. Hernandez has thrown 21 innings this spring, striking out 14 while giving up 16 hits and seven earned runs. Meanwhile, Niemann, who had a 3.08 ERA in eight starts last season before health issues cut short his summer, has thrown 12.2 innings this spring with nine strikeouts. He has allowed 11 hits and three earned runs.
“He keeps getting better,” Maddon said. “I told him that in the dugout, every time we send him back out there, he looks better. His command has gotten better. His velocity has gotten better. Everything. The ball’s on the ground. Everything you would expect of him keeps getting better every time he goes out.”
Will it be enough to earn a spot in the rotation? That remains uncertain. However, aside from a changeup that sailed on him against Rasmus, he made a strong pitch to earn the role.
“I can control how I pitch and continue like that,” Hernandez said. “It’s for other people to make a decision for who is going to stay in the rotation.”
Extra work for two
Outfielder Sam Fuld and catcher Jose Molina received time in a minor-league game Thursday. Fuld (right hamstring tightness) and Molina, who returned from representing Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, played to keep loose.
Fuld went 0-for-3 with a walk. Meanwhile, Molina had six at-bats (no stats were reported).
Fuld wasn’t expected to hit in a minor-league game until Friday. As the afternoon approached, though, he said he felt well enough to play.
“It happened quickly,” Fuld said.
Close call in the outfield
Shortstop Yunel Escobar and left-fielder Matt Joyce had a close call in left field. Josh Thole’s pop fly to shallow left in the fifth resulted in a small collision between Escobar and Joyce.
Escobar caught the ball, despite Joyce falling to the ground after slight impact between the two. Maddon said the miscommunication can’t become an issue.
“What I heard was Joyce calling for it,” Maddon said. “But (Escobar) said that they yelled at the same time. Because of that, he did not get out of the way. And that happens when they yell simultaneously. That can’t happen.”
Longoria growing as a leader
He’s no stranger to questions about third baseman Evan Longoria, but Maddon touched on the five-year player’s growth as a leader. Longoria signed a six-year, $100 million contract extension last November.
On Thursday, Longoria went 1-for-2 with a walk. He’s batting .394 with 13 hits and seven RBI this spring.
“He understands what his role is now and in the future,” Maddon said. “He has handled it very well. … He embraces it. He doesn’t run away from it.”