BRADENTON, Fla. — Playing for the first time in 17 days, Cesar Hernandez had a couple of good swings in his return to the Phillies' lineup Thursday.
Hernandez, who had been dealing with a strained hip flexor, led off for the Phils and played second base. With Jean Segura at shortstop and Maikel Franco at third base, the Phillies had three-quarters of their projected opening day infield together. (Rhys Hoskins was in Port Charlotte as the Phils' other split-squad DH.)
Hernandez stroked a line drive single to right field to lead off the game and reached on a hard-hit error to first base in the third inning. It was a sharp liner that short-hopped Pirates first baseman Josh Bell and bounced off his glove. Hernandez looked healthy and fast in busting it down the first-base line to beat the return throw.
Hernandez said Thursday was about making sure his fingers and legs felt good and they did. He admitted he's a little rusty at the plate, but he does have two more weeks until opening day to get his timing back.
It will be interesting to see whether Hernandez leads off for the Phillies on Mar. 28. Early in camp, manager Gabe Kapler indicated that he liked Hernandez in that spot and was expecting a return to his pre-2018 form. In 2016 and '17, Hernandez hit .294 with a .372 on-base percentage, an elite mark.
As Hernandez missed 2½ weeks with the injury, Andrew McCutchen drew the majority of leadoff plate appearances for the Phillies. McCutchen brings more power to the leadoff spot and similar on-base skills. Hernandez is the faster runner. The stolen base hasn't been as much a part of Hernandez's game as it should be, but McCutchen has been an even less successful base-stealer in recent years, going just 42 for 68.
The advantage of leading Hernandez off is that it would further lengthen the Phillies' lineup. If you bat him first, you can bat McCutchen sixth and have a more consistent bat in that run-producing spot. Whereas if you bat McCutchen first, Hernandez might fit best in the 8-hole with Maikel Franco sixth.
Hernandez wants to lead off but doesn't mind if he's at the bottom of the order.
Kapler said Wednesday that this year, he'll be going with his gut more in setting the lineup. He has more wiggle room with a lineup this talented. There isn't as pressing a need to gain every marginal advantage with perfect lineup optimization because this batting order should score runs even if not constructed flawlessly.
If Hernandez does lead off and maintains the on-base percentage he has throughout his career, he has a chance to blow past his career-high of 91 runs scored.
"I want to score 100-plus runs," he said. "Having guys like Segura, Bryce, Realmuto, it will be nice."
The next Phillie to return will be Odubel Herrera (hamstring), who is slated to DH on Saturday in Clearwater.
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