HOUSTON – When he was 13, little Enrique Hernandez, still undersized and underrated, found himself glued to television every October night. “I’ve never missed a playoff game,” he said, and that particular year 2004 delighted him. For a kid who grew up in Puerto Rico, baseball heroes abounded: Carlos Delgado, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada. At that time, however, no one was better than Carlos Beltran.
To see Beltran in the 2004 playoffs was to see a painter render his masterpiece. His potential flourishes, his talent shines and his star sparkles. When he went out, it was news. He wore the Houston Astros on the eve of the World Series.
Seventeen years later, Hernandez – more undersized, now known as Kiké and finally appreciated – achieves the kind of performance he always believed existed in himself. He believed it during the first seven years of his career when others didn’t, believed it when he landed with the Boston Red Sox as a free agent in February and the ‘Believed because they rode it, like the Astros did Beltran, to the edge of something historic.
Hernandez continued his epic streak on Saturday with another homerun in the Red Sox’s 9-5 win over the Astros in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. It was his fifth homerun in seven playoff games, in which he went 16 for 32 with a .500 / .514 / 1.094 line, the best seven-game streak to start a playoff series since Beltran .448 .529. /1.138 with six circuits. Hernandez set first seven game records for most goals (35, beating Beltran’s 33) and extra base hits (nine), tying Hideki Matsui’s all-time hitting total.
And best of all, he’s earned the approval of perhaps the most difficult teammate of his career. Chase Utley, the six-time All-Star second baseman with whom Hernandez played for four seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, is notoriously reluctant to lavish praise. Amid Hernandez’s jag, however, he sent a single text message to his former student. There were no words. Just an emoji.
“This,” Hernandez said, “is the biggest compliment in the world.”
Hernandez, 30, was popular with others. His Red Sox teammates. Opponents on the Tampa Bay Rays, which Boston ousted in the divisional series. As well as the Astros, who survived two of his home runs to win Game 1. Sport evaluators, who no longer wonder why Red Sox manager Alex Cora put Hernandez in hole 2 d ‘a formation that includes Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, JD Martinez and Kyle Schwarber.
“I always knew I was capable of this,” Hernandez told ESPN the day after Game 2 on Saturday. “It was just a question for me to have the opportunity.”
And it is, more than anything, the story of how Hernandez became the star of those playoffs. It’s a story of resilience, overcoming doubt, chances taken and delivered, of a sport that, more than any other, allows players to redefine themselves long after their stories have been written in ink.
Enrique Hernandez finishes the bottom of the second with a diving catch and leads the top of the third with a gigantic home run.
For Hernandez, it was always about what he wasn’t. He was not Carlos Correa or Francisco Lindor or Javier Baez, the jewels of his generation from Puerto Rico. He wasn’t a center fielder, shortstop, or second baseman, but rather a super-utility player, bent on filling in the gaps instead of consistently ending up on a roster card. He wasn’t part of the Astros’ future when he reached the big leagues five years after drafting him in 2009, so they traded him to the Miami Marlins; and he wasn’t in their future either, so they traded him to the Dodgers; and for as many big hits as he’s had in his 142 playoff appearances for them, he’s never been a big enough part of their giveaway for his liking.
Hernandez wanted to play every day, full time. And while he’s played most days over the past four seasons, it was in the kind of role that saw him constantly substituted or retired based on the field’s advantage. He has never shaken the reputation in Los Angeles for hammering left-handed pitching and battling right-handed people, even though over the past three years his OPS against both sides has been nearly identical.
“When I went against righties,” Hernandez said, “I felt like I had to get four hits in one at bat.”
It was eating his patience, and as much as he was trying to stay positive, it was eating him up. As belief in himself resonated in his heart, Hernandez’s confidence levels faltered, sometimes day by day. He tinkered and tweaked and went through stretches in which he wondered if his break would ever come. He’s always been a good, beloved teammate in the Dodgers clubhouse, likable, quintessential glue guy. And he improved the Dodgers with his versatility, contributing powerfully to their playoffs. His tying home run in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series last season helped keep the Dodgers alive on their way to their first World Series title in more than three decades.
At the same time, he knew there was more to him than a secondary role. He hooked up with Justin Turner, the Dodgers third baseman who was not at bat full time until he was 31. Turner preached perseverance, perseverance. Hernandez heard the words and tried to listen. When he became a free agent after the 2020 season, the Red Sox recruited him more aggressively than anyone, with Cora – who as general manager had chosen Hernandez to play for the Puerto Rico World Baseball Classic team. – leading the charge.
Hernandez signed a two-year, $ 14 million contract with the Red Sox and was told he would play every day. He would ping pong between second base and center field, and sometimes, when he struggled, Hernandez would text Turner asking for advice. Turner’s words backed Hernandez, and ahead of a tough fight with COVID-19 that kept him out for almost two weeks in August and September, he was set to play a career-high in matches . Even after the stoppage time, Hernandez recorded 585 home plate appearances, qualified for the batting title for the first time, and had nearly five wins over substitution.
He also apparently found his position. Hernandez locked on the central field role, and he was brilliant there in October, stalking deep flying balls with aplomb, sprinting and diving to snag the tumbling lines, and unleashing otherworldly throws that have been timed up to 97.5 mph. Of course, while his feet and glove have impressed – an impression as good as he did at the position where Beltran defined himself – Hernandez’s bat remains the centerpiece so far.
Most impressive is the pitchers’ apparent inability to find anything that confuses Hernandez. He scores fastballs, hitting .350 with a home run. He’s maiming everything else, going 9-for-12 with four homers, three doubles, and a 2,000-hit percentage – yes, that’s two thousand – against sliders, curveballs, shifts, and fastballs to. split fingers. Since baseball started following the pitching in 2008, no hitter had hit seven extra hits on soft tips in a single playoff series; Hernandez has done it before and the playoffs aren’t even halfway there.
Nothing, it seems, can stop Hernandez at this point – not even bad food poisoning his wife, Mariana, suffered on the trip to Houston. It’s back to Boston now, from the comforts of home and Fenway Park, which will host Game 3 on Monday. The Red Sox, after their fifth straight playoff game with more than 10 hits, stole the field advantage with the Game 2 home run play-off – two grand slams preceded Hernandez’s blast – and could possibly finish their fifth place in the World Series since 2004 in front of their fans.
Boston never faced Beltran in 2004, when the Astros, then in the National League, lost in the championship series to the St. Louis Cardinals. In his last five playoff games, Beltran has remained scorching, batting .412 / .545 / .824 as the Cards pledged to have him walk in over 20% of his home plate appearances. They did it with Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and Jeff Kent – the same caliber of protection that backs Hernandez – striking behind Beltran. So, the idea of Hernandez being fed a diet of bad locations is not out of reach.
Until he starts making outings, it might be the Astros’ best hope to navigate what they couldn’t have seen coming. No one did, really. But that’s what makes Kiké Hernandez’s October so special: it’s the kind of thing anyone, well, can enjoy.