MIAMI — Nobody would have blamed Jeremy Hernandez for feeling like a Marlin out of water.
The hard-throwing right-hander, a long reliever and setup man during his four-year major league career, was accustomed to pitching in tight spots. But taking over for Bryan Harvey, Florida's bullpen ace and one of the premier closers in the game, was another thing altogether.
Even the most seasoned professional might sweat.
"I was a little nervous and I was also a little worried about Bryan," said Hernandez, recalling the game in which he replaced Harvey. "I just took a couple of deep breaths and went right at them."
Hernandez, a 6-foot-4 former Poly High and Cal State Northridge standout, has parlayed that approach into nine saves--third-best in the National League. Harvey left a game against Atlanta on April 26 with a strained muscle in his right elbow and later was placed on the 15-day disabled list. Hernandez's first save came that same night and he hasn't vacated the role since, although he said he is not sure of Manager Rene Lachemann's future plans. "They had the potential to go to a lot of people," said Hernandez, 27. "They didn't tell me I was going to be a stopper. I didn't know if it was going to be a permanent thing."
If not permanent, Hernandez is at least on extended assignment. Harvey, fresh off the disabled list, was warming up in the bullpen on Saturday when he experienced tightness in his injured elbow.
"Harvey didn't feel good warming up, so we shut him down," Lachemann said. "There's talk about him (going on the DL), but we'll re-evaluate him tomorrow before making that decision."
Closer was not the role the Marlins expected Hernandez to fill when they acquired him from Cleveland for pitcher Matt Turner the day before the season opener.
"We traded for him to set up Harvey," Lachemann said. "We also wanted someone to give Harvey a rest once in a while."
With the Indians last season, Hernandez had a record of 6-5 with a 3.14 earned-run average in 49 relief appearances. He converted eight of 13 save opportunities. Starting the season with San Diego, he was 0-2 with a 4.72 ERA and no saves in 21 games, primarily setting up Gene Harris.
The deal that sent Hernandez to Florida apparently was fueled by former Marlin pitching coach Marcel Lachemann, who recently was hired to manage the Angels. Lachemann saw Hernandez pitch in Cactus League spring training games.
"My brother and Doug Rader (Florida's batting coach) had always liked him a lot," Rene Lachemann said. "They were really high on him. They thought he was very capable of doing a good job, and he has done a very good job for us."
In 19 games, Hernandez has blown only three of 12 save opportunities and has a record of 3-3 with a 2.74 ERA. His only real poor outing came last Sunday, when he yielded four earned runs in the ninth inning and blew a 9-6 lead in a 10-9 loss against St. Louis. It was a slip, but not one that worried his teammates.
"Everything's fine with him," catcher Benito Santiago said. "He has done very well and I expect it to continue."
Hernandez credits Marcel Lachemann for much of his success with the Marlins. It wasn't a happy day, Hernandez said, when the Angels hired Lachemann to replace the fired Buck Rodgers earlier this month.
"It was a big disappointment," Hernandez said. "When I got here, I was designated as his project, but he didn't want to make any changes in me (mechanically). He worked with what I had. The biggest problem with me was mentally, and with his help I learned to go out there a lot more sure of myself. . . . He was primarily the reason I am here."
For Hernandez, the road to Miami was a circuitous route.
After a stellar three-year stint at Northridge, where he won 21 games and still holds the school's career record for games started with 43, Hernandez was drafted by St. Louis in the second round of the 1987 draft. He was traded to the Padres two years later and played for their minor league teams in Wichita, Kan., and Las Vegas, where he was converted into a reliever, before sticking with the big club in 1993.
His career never flourished with the Padres and after going to Cleveland for what Hernandez thought would be a better opportunity, he finds himself in his third major league city in three years. But Hernandez prefers to accentuate the good things about his recent switch of uniforms.
"You always have to look at things in a positive way," Hernandez said. "Like (Marlin team psychologist) Harvey Dorfman says, 'You take what happened to you the day before, learn from it and get rid of it. You take what you need from it.' There's no sense in dwelling on that stuff."
Hernandez says he likes playing with the Marlins but prefers to make his permanent home elsewhere, where there is less commotion. He lives in the off-season with his wife, Sandra, and three children--5-year-old son Finlan, 13-month-old daughter Dallas and newborn son Dakota--in Yuma, Ariz., but is anticipating a move to Texas.
"I like smaller towns," said the soft-spoken Hernandez, who was born in Burbank. "I like to spend time with my family and I like quiet places. We haven't decided where to live. We are looking for a place where the pressures of life are not so big."
The pressure of close ballgames can't be avoided, however--not even after Harvey is healthy again.
"Bryan is not going to come back 100% right away, so there will be other times when I'll go to Jeremy in a save situation," Lachemann said.
The possibility appeals to Hernandez.
"They'll bring (Harvey) in slowly, but they'll have people warming up behind him," Hernandez said. "It means that we could have a one-two punch."