With A Year Under His Belt, Hazleton Area Grad Enters Season Stronger

March 26, 2018 GMT

TAMPA, Fla. — On the one hand, he expected it.

The level of talent Tony Hernandez was going to see in professional baseball was going to be unlike any he experienced before.

On the other, the Hazleton Area product didn’t expect it to hit him quite as hard.

“Coming up, whether it was little league, high school, or even college, I was kind of the top couple guys every year, so I was used to being, whether it was the ace, or being one of the top guys,” he said. “Where here, everyone’s good. Everyone’s just as good as you.”

It took a toll. Everyone needed to work every day. Everyone needed to compete every day. Everyone had potential.

“Of course it’s a shock, but the competitor in me is like ‘They’re good, but so am I,’ ” he said.

Hernandez is in his second spring training as a member of the Yankees organization. They scooped up the 21-year-old southpaw in the 15th round of the 2016 draft out of Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York.

“It’s a blessing, honestly,” he said. “I come out here every day with the mentality that all of this can be taken away in literally a day. Because it can be. I’ve seen people that just got released not too long ago. So, I’m blessed to be here. I’m blessed for the opportunity.”

He is more prepared this time around. He feels stronger, both physically and mentally. He’s enjoying himself and is coming off a solid season.

Of course, he got a pretty good boost in June. That’s when he became a father.

“My daughter was born June 9, and that was right before the season actually started,” he said. “Fortunately, I got to go home and I got to experience her birth, and when I came back, it’s like everything changed. Everything literally flip flopped. From me being not too confident, me being always down to literally me ... every pitch I threw was technically for her. And that’s what really drove me to have a pretty good year last year.”

Hernandez went from extended spring training to the rookie Gulf Coast League, his second stint in the circuit. His first two outings as a dad were scoreless: five innings, seven strikeouts and no walks against the GCL Tigers East; then four innings, three strikeouts and one walk against the GCL Tigers West. The next few got rougher and his ERA was up to 5.14 on July 26. But he rebounded over the last month of the season, eventually shaving his ERA down to 3.44.

He pitched 52⅓ innings, allowed 52 hits, walked 14 and struck out 45.

“Whether it was my senior year of high school to my freshman year of college, or my sophomore year to (the pros), I’m really improving every year and I’m enjoying it,” Hernandez said. “Even if it’s slow progress, it’s progress, and I’ll take that any day.”

Progress Saturday at the Yankees’ minor league complex meant focusing on his lower half. Hernandez pitched a simulated game — he faced a group of hitters and situations that might arise in a real game, but in a controlled way and without a defense behind him — where he worked on consistency in his legs. Sometimes he worries too much about his upper half, he said, and can go out of whack.

The results were good.

He surrendered a couple hard hit balls, but countered them with some strikeouts, including an inning-ending one on a knee-buckling curveball that sent Hernandez into a celebratory half-spin before he sprinted back to the dugout.

“That was a nice one,” he said with a smile. “That had a big drop to it. That’s another thing I’m working on, because that’s pretty much my bread and butter. It’s always been. So, it’s something I try to feed off of. The first week or two, it was kind of iffy, but I’m starting to get it back.”

It’s difficult to be in spring training with his family back in Hazleton. He doesn’t get to wake up with his daughter each morning and can’t hold her in his arms every day. That part will get harder the longer he’s down here, he knows, but he hopes it will be worth it in the long run.

It’s also nice not to be experiencing pro ball alone. Hernandez’s former Hazleton Area rotation-mate Sal Biasi is out in Surprise, Arizona, going through his first spring training as a member of the Kansas City Royals organization.

Biasi made a stellar debut in his half-season of pro ball. He went 4-2 with a 2.41 ERA in 13 games after the Royals drafted him out of Penn State in the 11th round in June.

In 2014, they won a District 2 Class 4A championship on the diamond together, and they aren’t the only members of that team with big baseball dreams. Sal’s brother, Dante, was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 22nd round the same year Hernandez went to the Yankees. However, he was coming off Tommy John surgery, so he fulfilled his commitment to Penn State and will be eligible to be drafted again after next season. Joey Baran started out at Stony Brook, transferred to Lackawanna College after an injury, and will move on to Penn State next year.

The Yankees haven’t told Hernandez where he’ll be for the season. Extended spring training or a Class A team are the likely options. He’ll be ready for whatever comes next.

“Keep working hard,” he said. “Keep staying healthy, which is one of the main things, which I’ve obviously by my hard work and by the grace of God, I’ve been able to stay healthy these last couple years.”

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