Last year, Hernandez made the most of that opportunity when the Rays signed him on the mend. He spent the season at Triple-A Durham and went 7-6 with a 3.29 ERA in 21 starts before going on the disabled list with inflammation in his left middle finger, which ended his season.
Despite the setback, the southpaw's recovery story is one of perseverance and heart.
Hernandez, 29, made his Major League debut at 21, jumping straight to the Astros from Double-A in 2001 and went 1-0 with a 1.02 ERA in three starts, including 17 strikeouts in 17 2/3 innings. He spent parts of three years with the Astros, compiling a 9-8 record with a 4.54 ERA in 35 games, 33 of which were starts.
In 2002, he began the season as Houston's fifth starter in a rotation fronted by Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller, and finished the season 7-5 with a 4.38 ERA in 21 starts and two relief stints. Hernandez then missed all of the '03 season due to surgeries to repair a small tear of the labrum and in the rotator cuff of his left shoulder. He has struggled since and did not pitch at all during the '07 season.
"Basically I wanted to give my mind a break [in 2007]," Hernandez said. "I was stressed out after two surgeries. I was not in baseball. I just wanted to take a break. After that, I was trying to show teams, players, coaches, whoever, that there was something left in me. Being a lefty is just a plus. That's what I was looking just to prove. But I'm sure I can make a big league roster and still pitch in the big leagues."
Hernandez signed with the Rays on July 28, 2008, and made six starts at Class A Vero Beach, where he posted a 2-1 mark with a 1.04 ERA; opposing batters hit just .131 against him. Last spring, he started the Rays' first exhibition at the refurbished Charlotte Sports Park, and his comeback seemed to gain some momentum from being back in the spotlight, even if only for a fleeting moment. This spring, he feels even more confident his career is back on track.
"For me, it was all a matter of getting out there, working on the field, baseball stuff, getting the ball every five days. That for me was major. It was big. The way it went last year, I think it helped me. I feel strong. I think I can get a little more velocity. [My] curveball is getting sharper. [My] changeup has been right there. The cutter was a pretty good pitch for me last year. I think all I have to do is keep doing what I did last year, and let's see what happens."
|-- Carlos Hernandez|
Hernandez explained that last season's finger injury was a strange occurrence.
"[It] started making my forearm tight," said Hernandez, running a finger along the inside of his forearm to illustrate the problem. "I tried to pitch through it, but it was hard. Now it's done. I feel good. I'm throwing great. I'm just looking forward to opportunities like everybody in here."
Rays manager Joe Maddon said he wants to get another good look at Hernandez this spring.
"This guy's a Major League pitcher," Maddon said. "I love his attitude, too, in the sense that he's such a good professional and he understands the profession. And he gives to the other guys. Just watching how he and Alex Torres are interacting right now, he's good and he has all the qualifications in regard to makeup. I think he's great."
Looking back at 2009, Hernandez feels satisfaction, which fuels his hopes of a return to the Major Leagues.
"For me, it was all a matter of getting out there, working on the field, baseball stuff, getting the ball every five days," Hernandez said. "That for me was major. It was big. The way it went last year, I think it helped me. I feel strong. I think I can get a little more velocity. Curveball is getting sharper. Changeup has been right there. The cutter was a pretty good pitch for me last year. I think all I have to do is keep doing what I did last year, and let's see what happens."
A smile interrupted Hernandez's serious demeanor when asked if he felt resurrected.
"Basically, I'll say so," Hernandez said. "It feels good to have the uniform on and be back in baseball."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.