Wednesday, October 20, 1999

'El Duque' dares batters to beat him




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BOSTON — He is either 30 years old or 34, and he doesn't think it's any of our business. The only person entitled to the inside information, Orlando Hernandez says, is New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who hasn't asked.

        He fled Cuba on either a flimsy raft or a sleek yacht, but two years later the specific details are still on a need-to-know basis.

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        “El Duque” is nothing if not mysterious, his life story as much a matter of conjecture as concrete facts. When it comes to throwing a baseball, though, this is one guy who can fill in the blanks.

        Hernandez took a shutout into the eighth inning Monday night and left Fenway Park early Tuesday morning as the Most Valuable Player of the American League Championship Series. The bald-headed right-hander's 6-1 victory over the Boston Red Sox clinched the Yankees' 36th World Series appearance and added another layer to a growing legend.

        “He really likes these pressure situations,” Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said. “He comes out and gives us a chance to win.”

Best on excellent staff
        On a pitching staff that includes three former 20-game winners — Roger Clemens, David Cone and Andy Pettitte — Hernandez is now the unquestioned ace. He started Game1 in both of New York's playoff series and can be expected to take the mound again when the World Series opens Saturday.

        His age is uncertain. His pitching is timeless. “It seems like 100 years ago when I sat in spring training of '98 and watched him throw on the side,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said. “I saw that big leg kick and I was like, "Well, I don't know if we can do that.'”

        Torre's reservations have long since evaporated. Hernandez' singular delivery demands an amount of flexibility few pitchers could contemplate and fewer would imitate. Then, after bringing his left knee nearly to chin level, Hernandez turns on the hitter with more arm angles than an octopus.

        Hernandez' motion is comically complex yet surprisingly stress-free. Hernandez threw at least 110 pitches in each of his last 10 regular-season starts. He threw a season-high 138 pitches Monday night. At a point in the season when most pitchers are arm-weary and shoulder-sore, Hernandez shows less strain than a kid half his age (whatever that is).

Hunger never leaves him
        Having worked for $9.75 a month as a rehabilitation therapist at a Havana psychiatric hospital, “El Duque” is determined to earn his keep in the big leagues. He pitches like a man worried about his next meal rather than his next million.

        “He's really proud of the opportunity he's got,” said Posada, who doubled as translator for Hernandez' postgame press conference. “The United States has given him a chance to be "El Duque' again. He's very happy and he's very proud that he's pitching in these situations.”

        “In Cuba, it's a little different,” Hernandez said. “They throw rocks, tomatoes, anything they can find. If you win, the opposite fans, they're going to try to beat you any way they can. Then, if you lose, your own fans are going to try to kill you.”

        Hernandez' combat experience back home has helped him pitch before hostile crowds and for high stakes. In three postseason starts this year, he has allowed a total of three earned runs.

        “It's a lot of fun to see a guy who is so intense, so aggressive, throwing a lot of strikes,” Posada said. “It makes it easy for me to call the game, because he wants the ball. He wants to be the guy. He wants to take charge.”

        Capable pitchers often come apart in the postseason. (Clemens comes to mind here.) Some guy might be more comfortable on a mountain in Tibet than a mound in October. Hernandez is one of those rare guys who thrives when it matters most. He has become the Yankees' indispensable starter.

        “He's dared people to beat him,” Torre said.

        Usually, they don't.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.