Hernandez catches up after Classic
New starting backstop reacclimates himself with Reds rotation
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Team Venezuela may wish it could still be playing in the World Baseball Classic, but count the Reds among the happy that squad's run is over.
With Venezeula's 10-2 loss to Korea in the semifinals of that tournament, the Reds now have all of their Classic participants back in the fold. Jerry Hairston Jr. and Mexico were done a while back, but Hairston just returned to camp on Sunday after dealing with a nasty flu. Venezuelan reliever Ramon Ramirez is here as well, but none of the returnees are as important as starting catcher Ramon Hernandez.
"Big catchup," manager Dusty Baker said about what lies ahead for Hernandez. "He was on a crash course before he left. They're a little different now. They're a little sharper, breaking balls are better. On the catching side, he has to see which guys' breaking balls go which way. There's a lot to learn here, the demeanor of each guy."
Hernandez, for his part, isn't overly concerned. Yes, it's going to take some time for him to completely feel comfortable, but he feels the groundwork was laid before he left, and it will be easy to pick back up now. It's not necessarily because of any work he put in behind the plate, but rather the effort he's made in terms of communication that will pay dividends.
"You have to talk to them, see what they want to do, how they want to work, and you go from there," Hernandez said.
That may sound obvious or overly simple, but Hernandez knows of what he speaks. This isn't the first time he's gone through the process of returning to a team late in spring, and that should help him get reacclimated this time around.
"He was in the same boat the last World Baseball Classic," Baker said. "It was his first year in Baltimore, so he has an idea of how to do it. He was talking to them a lot before he left. He was catching 'pens. It's a tough position."
It does add a certain wrinkle that this is Hernandez's first season with the Reds. It's not like he has the past few years to draw from in getting to know his staff. Back in 2006, he had joined the Orioles as a free agent following two years with the Padres. He ended up catching 135 games that season for Baltimore.
"The big thing to get to know the guys is communication," Hernandez said. "This is what you have to do. You communicate with everybody, so when you have to go talk to them, you have ideas of what they like to do, and after they start throwing, you see what they have working that day, what [they don't]."
It's worth noting that Hernandez had his best season in 2006, setting career highs offensively in at-bats, home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage, among other categories. And as important as it is for to him learn the Reds pitching staff's strengths and weaknesses, what he might be able to do from the bottom of the Cincinnati lineup is equally, if not more important.
He doesn't need to make for lost time with the bat like he does defensively. If anything, the Classic could work as a nice springboard. Hernandez went 7-for-19 (.368) in six games throughout the tournament, with a pair of homers and five RBIs. He clearly enjoyed the experience, but is now ready to look ahead to the task at hand.
"I had the adrenaline going," Hernandez said. "You get excited when you play for your country. You try to do your best. That's all you can do. Now you come back here trying to get ready for the season."
He's excited about what he's going to get to work with. It certainly will help Hernandez get comfortable behind the plate knowing the guys standing 60 feet, six inches from him have some pretty good upside. That has him feeling particularly optimistic about what could potentially happen in 2009.
"We've got some great arms. They're young guys, and they've been playing for a little while, so they know what to do when they are pitching," said Hernandez, referring to pitchers like Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto and whoever the No. 5 starter ends up being. "When you have a good arm, they have a lot of energy, that's a good thing [to have] have on your pitching staff.
"Now we can get set. Hopefully we'll have a good season, have the team go to the postseason. That's what we're looking for, trying to go to the postseason. That's what we're getting ready for."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.