Phillies bench coach Larry Bowa wanted second baseman Cesar Hernandez to know quite clearly that he wasn’t getting time off to rest.
This was in mid June when the Phillies were in Minnesota for a three-game series at Target Field.
A month prior, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin had slid Hernandez down in the order in an effort to send a message to the slumping infielder.
This time, the coaching staff, growing tired of watching Hernandez and his .293 on-base percentage hit the ball in the air for outs, decided to sit Hernandez for back-to-back games.
“We had a harsh reality check for him,” Mackanin said. “(Hitting coach) Steve Henderson has been bugging him for as long as I’ve known him to get on top of the ball, keep the ball out of the air, quit upper-cutting the ball. And finally, when we were in Minnesota, Bowa kind of put an exclamation point on it.”
That’s when it finally clicked for Hernandez.
In his lone start in that series, on June 23, Hernandez went 4 for 4 with a triple and three runs in the series finale.
He’s been arguably the team’s best hitter ever since.
After a 3-for-4 night in Saturday’s 4-2 win over St. Louis (see game story), Hernandez’s average is at .359 since the benching in Minnesota.
Saturday night, he hit his first career leadoff home run.
Hernandez, who turned 26 on May 23, has been at the top of the batting order since July 24. He’s racked up a .469 OBP since the move. He also leads MLB with nine triples on the season.
“He’s leveled off his swing,” Mackanin said. “When they talk about swinging down on the ball, when you take a stride, what it does is level your bat plane out. It keeps your bat in the strike zone more, rather than in and out. It stays level through the zone.”
And it also doesn’t hurt the pop in the bat, as evidenced by the 0-1 fastball he turned on for his fourth home run of the year.
“Especially when the ball is up in the zone, you’ve got a chance to stay on top of it and drive it in the gap or out of the ballpark,” Mackanin said.
Then he paused before saying: “Maybe Cesar will become a power hitter.”
No, that’s probably not true. But he’s certainly becoming a dangerous one. His average is up to .298 on the year, his .358 OBP is seventh among MLB second baseman and his OPS is a career-best .741.
One area of Hernandez's game that still occasionally drives is manager nuts, however, is the adventure he can be on the base paths. Hernandez has been caught stealing nine times this year to just 13 steals. He’s had plenty of baserunning blunders.
“Every player has warts, some have more than others,” Mackanin said. “He’s got some areas to work on and that’s one of them. Certainly, he’s got ability and tools to help you win, especially if he’s going to continue to hit the way he’s been hitting and play defense.”
If he can keep doing those two things as well as he has, he’ll at least cause the Phillies to think a little harder about what to do with him when prospect J.P. Crawford eventually makes his arrival in Philadelphia to take over as the everyday shortstop.
The expectation has long been the Phillies would rather keep Freddy Galvis in the lineup for his defensive ability and would move him to second base.
But Galvis is a career .239/.277/.358 hitter. Hernandez’s slash line looks like: .278/.340/.354. The two are longtime friends from their time growing up in Venezuela. They’ll soon be fighting for a job.
“I never think about that,” Hernandez said. “I go year-for-year. We’ll see what happens.”
“I had a meeting with him and Freddy early in the season," Mackanin said. "Just told them to go do what they can do and have the best year that they can… not to worry about it, compete on a daily basis and let the cards fall where they may."
Ever since that trip to Minnesota, Hernandez is showing his hand.