At 32, Yadiel Hernández finally gets a shot in the major leagues

For the first time in his career, outfielder Yadiel Hernández has been promoted to the big leagues.

With a roster spot open due to the hamstring injury suffered by Howie Kendrick that landed him on the injured list, the Nationals announced they had purchased the contract of the 32-year-old Cuban-born outfielder.

Hernández joined the Nats on Oct. 1, 2016. From 2009-14, he played for Cocodrilos de Matanzas of the Cuban Baseball Federation, joining the league at the age of 21. He also has experience playing in the Mexican Pacific, Dominican and Puerto Rican winter leagues.

“Great story,” said manager Davey Martinez on a pregame Zoom video call with reporters. “He’s worked his tail off to get here. Super proud of him. He will play some left field, DH some, pinch-hit some. Really happy that he is here. Great kid. He will help as a left-handed hitter off the bench. Excited to watch him play a little bit. I know he’s excited. I just talked to him about 10 minutes ago and his eyes got watery. He worked really hard to get here. I’m super proud that he did. I am super proud that he is here.”

Martinez said the Nats chose Hernández because they are unsure when Juan Soto will be fully healed from a sore elbow in his throwing arm. The skipper said they like the power Hernández brings. He hit 63 homers with 217 RBIs in 370 career minor league games from 2017-19. He was named the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year last season after hitting .323 and clubbing 33 homers with 90 RBIs in 126 games for the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies.

“We don’t know when Juan can throw again,” Martinez said. “He’s going to start throwing a little, but we don’t know and I want to keep him, unless he’s 100 percent, just let him DH and hit for the time being. Yadiel has been swinging the bat really well. He can play left field. He can play a little bit of right field, so give him a shot. He also can DH if Soto does come back. He is a nice bat to have off the bench. He can hit. He can hit for power. Won (Minor League) Player of the Year for us last year so I think he fits in.”

Andrew Stevenson is healthy, is good defensively, has major league experience and hits from the left side. But Martinez said the Nats liked what they have seen from Hernández and his power bat and believe he deserved the shot.

“One, it’s a feel-good story, and two, this guy hit home runs,” Martinez said. “If there is a situation where we need a left-handed bat off the bench, he can pop one for us. I thought this was a great opportunity for him to come here these last 18 or 19 games and he can help us.”

Batting-Helmet-Blue-sidebar.jpgThe feel-good story originates in Matanzas, Cuba, where Hernández grew up. He worked his way through the Cuban Baseball Federation and finally was able to come stateside and sign with the Nats almost four years ago. Martinez said it was a long road for Hernández, who remained positive and believed in his abilities even while awaiting a call-up to the big leagues.

“He is a Cuban kid that worked his way to get here,” Martinez said. “Went through Mexico and played. Got him, signed him and worked diligently to get better. Everywhere he has been, he has hit. He has hit for power and he never gave up. He is not a young guy. But he never gave up and here he is today getting an opportunity to play in the major leagues, which was a dream for him.”

What also makes this story unique is the perseverance of Hernández. Most first-time call-ups this summer are teenagers or are in their early 20s. Hernandez turns 33 on Oct. 9.

“It’s one of those stories where it’s not a younger guy, it’s an older guy trying to live out his dream - that’s to play in the major leagues,” Martinez said. “One, he has worked diligently to get here. Two, for me, I’m proud to be a part of it. To be the guy to tell him, ‘Hey, congratulations, you worked really hard. Keep doing what you are doing and go out there and just have fun and try to help us win games.’ To see his face today was awesome.”

Martinez said Hernández’s promotion reminded him of his former teammate Jim Morris, a left-handed relief pitcher who broke into the major leagues in 1999 at 35 while with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, becoming one of baseball’s oldest rookies. Morris’ debut and background story was later made into the motion picture “The Rookie,” starring Dennis Quaid.

“I played with a guy that was (35) years old,” Martinez said. “They made a movie about him, in Tampa, a left-handed pitcher. He got his debut with us. You talk about being excited, he was a teammate, but you he actually felt like he was a 21-year-old kid. It was just a lot of fun watching him and the way he reacted to the whole rookie status quo for him at the age of (35) or (36). That was very exciting.”

Hernández’s family is with him in D.C. and will get to watch the games from their hotel. Martinez described the scene in his office earlier today when he told the outfielder he had finally made it to the major leagues.

“I went and got a cup of coffee and he was sitting there,” Martinez said. “I looked at him and he was very quiet, which is not typical. I said, ‘What’s the matter? Are you scared?’ He looked at me and said, ‘No!’ I said, ‘Well, congratulations, well done, awesome, testament to how hard you worked and we are proud that you are here. We just want you to go out there and have fun and help us win.’ He said he is ready to do anything that we ask. He is a good kid. Really is. The coaches talked to him already and said it is awesome that he is here. Just be ready to play.”

Martinez appreciates Hernández’s demeanor as well. He noticed how the Cuban outfielder was tremendously focused when he saw him in West Palm Beach in spring training and received positive reports from Fredericksburg from Randy Knorr, his Triple-A manager in Fresno last season.

“I talked to Randy about the guys and their attitude,” Martinez said. “That matters to us as well. All those guys have been great, don’t get me wrong. They have all been working hard. I talked to (Yadiel) in spring training a lot about defense. He took it to heart. I had conversations with Randy about his defense and how much he has improved, so we wanted to give him the opportunity now to come and maybe play a little bit and see what we have.

“When he’s not playing, he walks around with a bat. Sometimes he will stand there between innings while the pitcher is warming up and he works on his timing. I’ll ask him, ‘What are you doing?’ He goes, ‘You never know when you are going to need me, so I want to be ready.’ It’s kind of nice to see that.”

The skipper already spoke about how Hernández is a “quiet kid,” but he also has seen the outfielder’s personality come out at times.

“Always engaged, Martinez said. “But if you get to know him, he’s kind of a funny kid. Struggles a little bit with his English, but when you try to loosen him up a little bit about it, he has a good time with it and he is learning.

“He is a great kid. He’s not young, but he pays attention to what’s going on and he’s always wanted to get better. He talks to a lot of young hitters about his approach and what he sees and how pitchers would attack him, especially left-handed hitters. I saw it a lot in spring training when he was with us. He is a student of the game.”

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