10/16/2004 6:35 PM ET
Torre tabs El Duque for Game 4
Righty says he's ready -- if not, Yanks' rotation flexible
By Spencer Fordin / MLB.com
BOSTON -- His nickname is "El Duque," but it should be "El Enigma."
Orlando Hernandez has made a living by being mysterious, both to his opponents and the working press. This time, he seems set to trump himself. Not even Hernandez knows just what to expect from himself in Game 4 of the ALCS, largely because he's missed the last two weeks with a tired shoulder.
"To anticipate would be an error. You can't plan the future -- we have to deal with it now," he said via an interpreter. "We'll have to wait for (Sunday), and after the game, we'll talk about how many innings I was able to pitch and how I worked.
"If I was going to throw a bullpen, I could guarantee you nine zeroes. But I have a lot of respect for the Boston team and all of the other teams."
That's a typical answer from El Duque, who's as tough to pin down in an interview as he is on the mound. Normally, the Yankees would be thrilled to trot him out to take a postseason start. He's earned their trust with a 9-3 record and a 2.51 ERA in the playoffs, but his health throws those stats out the window.
The right-hander had shoulder surgery in May of 2003, and missed an entire year's worth of action, finally resurfacing as a Yankee this July. He showed no signs of the long layoff, winning his first eight decisions before his arm held him back. Hernandez lost twice to Toronto, then took the last two weeks to try to shake the dead arm.
"The one thing about it -- he's been through this so often that he's going to take the ball," manager Joe Torre said. "He's going to go out there and there's no guarantee what's going to happen. Other than, you know, he's going to have his wits about him."
That much is certain. Hernandez is fond of putting the postseason in proper perspective -- he insists that he's never nervous in baseball because he's gone through more anxious times in real life.
It all goes back to his exodus from Cuba, which consisted of a rickety boat ride to freedom. Even when talking about his injury, Hernandez can't help but reference the most important event in his life.
"My hopes and dreams and expectations didn't start when I was rehabbing. They started when I was able to stand on free soil when I first arrived in this country," he said. "As far as athletically, I really didn't have any goals -- just to come back healthy and strong."
In some ways, this October is reminiscent of his first playoff experience. Torre can remember when Hernandez was an advanced-age rookie, pitching in the big leagues for the first time. The year was 1998, and circumstances conspired to give him a long layoff.
He finally got the ball in Game 4 of the ALCS, with Cleveland leading the series, 2-1. Seven shutout innings later, Torre knew he had something special.
"It was like 16 days and he hadn't pitched. He went out there, and it was such a must-win game for us," he said. "He was dynamite that day. For sure, that certainly gave us the confidence to really schedule him after that."
The rest is recent history. Hernandez won his first eight postseason decisions and took home the ALCS MVP award in 1999. That was against Boston, when he started twice and went 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA. His best effort came in the clincher, when he blanked the Red Sox for seven frames.
Despite his success, Hernandez doesn't have any special tonic for the postseason.
"I look at a playoff game as any other game. I don't try to separate playoff from regular season games and I try to prepare for every game equally," he said. "You get the ball and you pitch when it's your day, be it tomorrow or the next day. It's up to the manager to make that decision, and you do the job when you're given the ball."
It's a good thing he has that attitude, because the Yankees still aren't 100 percent certain when he'll get the ball. The rainout afforded them some flexibility -- New York could bring back Mike Mussina and Jon Lieber on normal rest, but that would put the rest of the staff in flux.
How would it affect Hernandez? It likely would set him up for a Game 7 showdown, but it would also extend his time between starts to almost three weeks. The Yanks reserve the right to change their minds, but for now, they're still circling Game 4 for their most perplexing pitcher.
"We would probably not feel as comfortable with him in the seventh game as we do in the fourth game," said Yankees' pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. "Primarily, it's been a while since he's pitched. We know what the other guys have done."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.