Hernandez punctuated his walk-off homer into the home bullpen with a majestic one-handed bat flip, and why not? It was the first career homer for the 32-year-old, who made his major league debut this month and had wondered, after going 0 for 7 in his first four games and being optioned to the team’s alternate training site, if he would ever get the opportunity to play in a big league game again.
“I was extremely happy,” Hernandez, who became the oldest player in MLB history to hit a walk-off home run for his first career home run, said in Spanish through a team interpreter. “In reality, it never crossed my mind that I was going to end the game that way. I’ve always thought I was going to hit a home run at some point, because that’s part of my game. … I just didn’t foresee it happening in that moment."
“Awesome,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said after the game. “What can I say? Big home run right there. First one of his career. Outstanding. It was a good pick-me-up, I mean, it really was for our club. I know he can hit, I’ve seen him hit, so it’s good to see him get a couple hits and hit that big home run for us.”
The Nationals signed Hernandez for $200,000 in 2016, one year after he defected from Cuba. He hit .369 in his last full season with the Cuban national team. At Class AAA Fresno last season, Hernandez hit .323 with 33 home runs and was named Washington’s minor league player of the year. He was called up to the big leagues on Sept. 10 after Howie Kendrick was placed on the injured list and made his debut as a pinch runner that night.
Hernandez said he tried to remain optimistic after being optioned last week.
“Throughout my career, I’ve been blessed in that sense, that I’ve always tried to maintain myself positive when it comes to this sport and my ability to play, and I think that’s helped me quite a bit at just maintaining my focus and positivity,” said Hernandez, who was recalled four days later. “I kept telling myself, ‘There’s still a few games left, and next time you get the opportunity, just get up here and do anything you can to help the team win, whatever is asked of you.”
Hernandez collected his first big league hit, a double, in the Nationals’ 2-1 loss to the Marlins on Sunday. He doubled again in the fourth inning on Tuesday, driving in Eric Thames for his first RBI. Then, with one out in the eighth inning and 20-year-old rookie Luis García on second base, Hernandez turned on a 2-1 pitch from Phillies closer Brandon Workman and deposited it over the right field fence.
“It’s too bad there were no stands in the fans for that one, because it was a remarkable achievement for him,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, who was always intrigued by Hernandez’s talent from watching him in international competitions, said Wednesday on 106.7 The Fan. “… He’s a credit to perseverance and sticking to your dream. I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Hernandez joined Wil Nieves — who? — as the only Nationals players to hit a walk-off for their first career home runs.
In some ways, Nieves’s two-run home run into the right field bullpen to beat the Chicago Cubs on April 25, 2008, was even more improbable than Hernandez’s. Nieves, a 30-year-old who had never played more than 28 games in a season at the major league level in his 12-year professional career, wasn’t a bopper. The most home runs he hit in a single minor league season was 10.
“I never expected that,” Nieves told reporters after his first career homer. “It felt like I was running on the clouds. It was unbelievable. I’ve never had that experience.”
The 2008 Nationals lost 102 games, but they had nine walk-off wins, including Ryan Zimmerman’s home run to beat the Atlanta Braves in the first game at Nationals Park and Nieves’s heroics, which were commemorated with a legendary MASN commercial. While Juan Soto and Trea Turner have had tremendous individual seasons this year, Washington had only one walk-off win and scant celebratory moments in a shortened and disappointing campaign before Tuesday. Hernandez’s home run will be one to remember.
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