Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Knuckleballer


Fernandez flutters on Reds' cusp

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        SARASOTA,Fla. ’— When the Cincinnati Reds hold staff meetings, Jared Fernandez's cheering section is sometimes confined to a single chair.

        The journeyman knuckleball pitcher has made a fan of Tim Naehring, the Reds'’director of player development. When Fernandez takes the mound, Naehring's first instinct is not to reach for his radar gun but to ’“go get my pompoms.”

        “I like the kid,” Naehring said. “I like his makeup. I like his upside. I like everything about him. He's still got to perform, but you almost root for a guy once in awhile when you like all the other stuff.”

        Fernandez is a 30-year-old non-roster pitcher with a non-predictable pitch. He has less than three weeks of major-league experience and more than one supervisor who is leery of his stuff. He has added a new pitch since last season and shed 25 pounds, but his status is still as shaky as a pup tent in a tornado.

        “He's a bubble guy,” manager Bob Boone said Tuesday. “When he's got the knuckleball working, it's awesome. When it's not, it's not very good. It's scary. It's a matter of being consistent.”

        One of the reasons the knuckleball continues to hover close to extinction is that the pitch can be as hard to harness as it is to hit. Besides Fernandez, the only current major-league practitioners are Detroit's Steve Sparks and Boston's Tim Wakefield.

        The pitch is customarily delivered at a speed below that of batting practice. Fernandez's knuckler ranges from 49 to 81 miles per hour — and if it doesn't move like a boozy butterfly, it is prone to get pounded. One Reds executive, who declined to speak for attribution, joked that watching Fernandez on a bad day had caused him to be treated for a sore neck.

        If Fernandez is to remain with the Reds, he must be able to make his knuckleball dance and dart on a regular basis and make effective use of the cut fastball he developed in winter ball. His advantage is that if other things are equal, he owns an enormous edge in durability.

        Fernandez logged more innings last year than any pitcher in the Reds'’camp. Between Triple-A Louisville, a September call-up with the Reds and a offseason stint in Puerto Rico, Fernandez's rubber arm accumulated 249 innings in 2001.

        He views himself as “an innings eater-upper,” a guy who can start or pitch long relief on short notice. It's not a glamorous role, but it's a plausible goal. Until the Reds get some thoroughbreds into their starting rotation, they are likely to have need of a workhorse.

        “I want to play every single day,” Fernandez said. “I don't care if I pitched 10 innings yesterday, I want to play. I bounce back pretty good.”

        Resilience is one of the qualities that drew Naehring to Fernandez's corner. Humility is another. Fernandez threw the knuckleball only as a novelty when he first broke into professional baseball in 1994, maybe once or twice a game, but he willingly revamped his repertoire when told the knuckleball was his ticket to the majors. He takes advice. He heeds instruction.

        “A lot of guys think it (the knuckleball) is easy, but you've got to have confidence to throw it,” Fernandez said. “When you're throwing 50 miles an hour to Sammy Sosa, that's an eye-opener.”

        Every pitcher wants to open eyes in spring training. The trick is to avoid causing people to cringe.

        Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456 or e-mail: tsullivan@enquirer.com.
       

       



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