Hector Hernandez got a quick taste of the Midwest League last season.
The left-hander worked three innings out of the Quad-Cities bullpen in one game following a late-season promotion from short-season Batavia, just enough to whet his appetite.
“I knew there was a lot more to learn,” Hernandez said. “It is difficult to learn a lot in three innings, but it did tell me that the hitters here would be better. It was good for me.”
Hernandez is eight starts into the season for the River Bandits. As his 3-3 record and 3.57 ERA illustrate, he has dealt with some early-season peaks and valleys.
His past two starts — a 7 1/3-inning outing against Cedar Rapids followed last Saturday by 6 2/3 innings at Clinton — have been his longest of the season.
He has won in two of his past three starts and feels like he has learned from both the good and the bad.
“This is a level where you learn how to pitch,” Hernandez said. “The hitters here are good fastball hitters who attack the fastball, and you have to attack them with your fastball and with your second-best pitches.”
Hernandez gains an appreciation for that with each outing, developing an understanding of how and when to make his secondary pitches work for him.
He also is gaining a better feel for the abilities of opposing batters, becoming more of a student of the game.
He finds himself concentrating more as he watches hitters in the days leading up to his next start.
“I am learning how to watch them as they work and learning how to plan by what I see from them,” Hernandez said.
It is all part of the development that continues for the native of Carolina, Puerto Rico.
“Hector is making progress, and he has thrown the ball in his last couple of starts as well as he has for us,” River Bandits pitching coach Ace Adams said. “He’s like all of us here. He’s looking for consistency.”
When Hernandez struggled in late April and early May, Adams watched him work through some delivery issues that were leading him to face deep counts against a number of hitters.
“His delivery is more connected now, and we’re seeing him get ahead of hitters more frequently,” Adams said.
He continues to refine his secondary pitches, a curve and change-up, that will allow him to more effectively compete as the Cardinals’ 10th-round pick of the 2009 draft works his way through the St. Louis farm system.
Hernandez sees it as all a part of the process that for him began at the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy.
It was there where he earned a scholarship opportunity to develop his skills while completing high school-level educational requirements.
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“It was a good experience for me. For two years, the focus was on baseball in the mornings and on classes in the afternoon,” said Hernandez, who was selected for the academy through a tryout.
He compares the morning sessions to spring training and said the emphasis then is on individual growth.
There Hernandez first learned the mechanics of pitching and first began to work on the curve and change-up that he continues to refine today.
“It was a very good experience for me, something that helped me get my start with the Cardinals and a place where I learned a lot,” he said.
Puerto Rico is also where Hernandez competed during the offseason. Starting last October, he participated in the Puerto Rican Winter League, an opportunity for him to face competitors from all levels of professional baseball.
“There were big-league guys, Triple-A players, all levels, and it was a good test for me and a chance to see how I could do against those guys,” Hernandez said. “That is how you learn in this game. You learn by doing.”
That is something that Hernandez expects to continue as his first full-season assignment in the Cardinals organization continues.
“I come here ready to work and get better so that I can work my way to the next level,” Hernandez said. “Like everyone, that is what I want to do, and to do that, I know I must work every day.”
Adams said that hasn’t been a problem.
“We have a group that isn’t afraid to work, and Hector is one of them,” Adams said. “He’s learning every day.”