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February 19, 2016

Former set-up man David Hernandez ready for Phils closer role

One of the more memorable moments of the 2015 baseball season came at Citi Field in late July, when Mets infielder Wilmer Flores couldn’t fight back tears after word began to spread that he was a part of a trade that would send him to Milwaukee.

The trade never became official, though, and instead, Flores stayed put and became an instant fan favorite in Flushing. Sure, there’s no crying in baseball, but it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the then-23-year-old Flores was in his ninth year in the Mets organization.

It was where he grew up, from a teenager to a man. It was where he was given an opportunity to play the game he loves and make a career out of it.

All players have similar feelings or attachments with organizations, most often with their first organizations – Vincent Velasquez spoke with admiration of being a part of the Houston Astros rebuild – but sometimes it’s with the place they eventually blossomed into big leaguers. New Phillies reliever David Hernandez, originally drafted by Baltimore, established himself as a dependable pitcher of the bullpen for the last five years with Arizona.

Hernandez departed the Diamondbacks organization the same winter when they became one of the most active buyers, signing big-ticket pitcher Zack Greinke and veteran reliever Tyler Clippard, and trading for starter Shelby Miller and shortstop Jean Segura.

“It was like, ‘What?!?” Hernandez said of seeing his former team sign Greinke to a $206.5 million deal a day before he signed his own modest contract with the Phillies. “But I think they’re doing good things and I wish them nothing but the best. It’s good for them. They definitely got a lot of the right pieces.”

While the Diamondbacks shoot for a playoff berth, Hernandez will try to carve out a role for himself in the Phillies bullpen and possibly establish himself as an effective major league closer in the process.

The Phils zeroed in on Hernandez – a 30-year-old Sacramento native – early in the free agent process, plucking him from the open market with a one-year, $3.9 million deal. Since the Dec. 9 signing was followed a week later with the trade that sent Ken Giles to Houston, it was viewed in retrospect as not only a precursor to the Giles deal but also an effective piece of insurance should the trade go down.

“We had wanted to add a veteran to the back end of our bullpen anyway whether we were trading Kenny or not, so I think we would have signed David regardless,” general manager Matt Klentak said at the time. “But I do think once we had David in the fold and we knew that we had someone who had pitched in late innings, high leverage situations before, it does make it a little bit easier emotionally to trade someone like Ken Giles.”

And now, with Giles gone and Jonathan Papelbon long gone, Hernandez begins camp with his new team in Clearwater, Fla., as the favorite for the Phillies closer job. Part of it is simple math: the front office gave Hernandez a guaranteed major league contract worth nearly $4 million.

The other possible closer candidates in camp – former big league closers Ernesto Frieri, Andrew Bailey and Edward Mujica – are in Clearwater as non-roster players on minor league contracts.

“I’m just very fortunate I was that high on their priority list,” Hernandez said of signing with the Phillies early in the offseason. “I’m just ready to compete and whoever that leads me in whatever role is there, I’m just trying to get outs.”

But has he zeroed in on the ninth inning?

“I’ve always been one of those guys that – I don’t care where I fit in the bullpen,” he said. “I just want to be in the bullpen and have success with whatever role I’m in. The cards will play out the way they will.”

Although he’s never been a full-time major league closer like the three aforementioned veterans, Hernandez has had a taste of the ninth inning before. In July of 2011, when Arizona closer J.J. Putz was on the disabled list, Hernandez converted saves in sevens straight appearances.

Six of those seven appearances were perfect – he retired every hitter he faced – and he racked up seven strikeouts while allowing one walk and zero hits during that two-week span.

“I did (feel) different – It’s a different animal,” Hernandez said. “It’s your last at-bat. Those are the toughest three outs to get in a game. I was very fortunate to be able to pitch behind J.J. and watch him. He was a great leader and I owe a lot to him. When he was on the DL he definitely helped me out – just to be able to be ready for the ninth inning. I know what it takes. I’m just excited just to be here and have that opportunity to close.”

Hernandez finished the 2011 season with 11 saves and enjoyed his best year in 2012, going 2-3 with a 2.50 ERA in 72 appearances, striking out 98 batters while walking only 22 in 68 1/3 innings. Hernandez was back in the eighth inning/set-up role again in 2013 before missing the entire 2104 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

He returned to action last June. Hernandez went 1-5 with a 4.28 ERA in 40 games, striking out 33 and walking 11 in 33 2/3 innings.

But the numbers were a little skewed since most of his struggled came in his first month back from surgery.

Hernandez allowed 10 hits and six runs (five earned) in eight games last June. In the 32 games that followed - in the season’s final three months - Hernandez had a 3.58 ERA and struck out 28 batters while walking seven in 27 2/3 innings.

“They kind of took it slow for the first month,” Hernandez said. “I remember when I was first activated I went seven days without throwing in a game, then four or five days. As soon as that month hit, then it was every other day, then back-to-back days. And that’s what I was accustomed to and I felt great doing it. And I felt good going into the offseason.”

Hernandez will be a full two years removed from Tommy John surgery the first week of April when the Phillies open the season in Cincinnati and he’ll be the odds-on favorite to take the ball with a lead in the ninth inning.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21