Saturday, April 19, 2008

Shortstop Hernandez Feels Pressure

BALTIMORE -- The Orioles may not be ready to make a change at shortstop, but they're giving their incumbent reason to believe his job may be in jeopardy. Baltimore manager Dave Trembley addressed the play of Luis Hernandez on Saturday and said that the infielder has looked overwhelmed at times during the season's first few weeks.

"He hasn't been the same guy," said Trembley. "I think he's in a fielding slump. I really do. That's honest."

Hernandez made a good first impression by batting .290 in limited duty last season, and the Orioles turned the shortstop position over to him after dealing Miguel Tejada to the Astros last winter. Baltimore tabbed Brandon Fahey as Hernandez's chief rival for the regular job, and Trembley has seen Hernandez slip in terms of defensive performance.

Hernandez has made only two errors, but Trembley has seen a litany of mistakes that haven't shown up in the box score.

"I'm convinced that it's more physical than it is nerves," he said. "I've watched him on tape. We brought him out [early on Friday] and you saw last night on a ground ball -- his feet were too close together catching the ball, [and he] was throwing off the wrong foot. [The umpire] called the guy safe yesterday on a steal because he tried to do a two-hand tag."

Juan Samuel, the O's third-base coach and infield instructor, said he's seeing many of the same symptoms with Hernandez. Samuel, a former big league second baseman, said Hernandez appears to be playing too cautiously.

"I don't see the same confidence we saw last year," Samuel said. "It seems like he's thinking too much when he should be reacting. He's thinking what he wants to do with the ball before he sees the ball there. We saw some of that in Spring Training. He started out very good, but we're starting to see some inconsistencies in some areas."

Hernandez has also struggled offensively, batting just .226 with a .258 slugging percentage in his first 15 games. Both Trembley and Samuel said he should be able to separate one aspect of his game from another.

"I don't think you should ever have a slump on the field," said Samuel. "You should never take that to the field."

"He shouldn't," said Trembley, "because I think I've adequately explained to him and on record that whatever I get from him offensively is a bonus. What I want from whoever's playing shortstop here is somebody who can consistently hold down the anchor at shortstop and make the routine play."

The Orioles don't have many in-house alternatives, but they could turn to Fahey if Hernandez continues to struggle. Scott Moore has been brushing up at shortstop down at Triple-A Norfolk, and the Orioles recently signed former big leaguer Alex Cintron. If Cintron begins to thrive at Norfolk, he may position himself as a legitimate short-term option.

If that isn't an option, the Orioles have to decide how often Hernandez should be in the lineup. Trembley gave him the day off on Saturday, and Samuel said he could benefit from taking a few days to sit down and decompress.

"It can only help," he said. "It would probably give him a chance to relax and get things off his mind."


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