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Yadiel Hernández making most of latest opportunity with Washington Nationals

Yadeil Hernández’s second home run and fourth hit of the game on Sunday was a walk-off winner...

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Yadiel Hernández went 7 for 15 (.467/.529/.667) with three of his four doubles on the season over nine games heading into Sunday afternoon’s series finale against the Chicago Cubs in the nation’s capital, and the first time up against right-hander Adbert Alzolay, the Nationals’ left fielder lined a 2-1 sinker up and in to center for a leadoff single, though he was stranded three outs later.

Hernández was 2 for 2 against Alzolay after he singled on a 1-1 slider up in the middle of the zone to drive in the third of three runs that Washington scored in the bottom of the third.

He grounded out to end the fourth on a full-count slider up in the zone, 2 for 3, then hit one out to left field in his fourth plate appearance, taking a 1-0 fastball from lefty Kyle Ryan for a ride for his third home run of the season, and a 5-3 Nats’ lead in the bottom of the seventh, before the Cubbies rallied to tie it up in the top of the eighth.

In his fifth plate appearance, in the home-half of the ninth, Hernández battled right-hander Manuel Rodríguez in a seven-pitch at-bat which ended when he hit a 100 MPH fastball out to left field for a walk-off home run, his second opposite field blast of the night, and his 4th homer of the 2021 season.

“That was a good at bat,” manager Davey Martinez said of the ninth-inning matchup after the Nationals’ 6-5 win.

“He laid off some pretty good breaking balls in that at bat as well. Got a ball where he could hit it hard and stayed through it.

“His strength is hitting the ball the other way, and you saw him, he stayed through the ball and hit the ball to left-center field. So, he had a good day. I told myself today I was going to keep him in the game because it was close enough and he’s swinging the bat well, and I joked around with him about, ‘Hey, you’ve got to play defense. Catch the ball, and play defense.’ But he’s awesome. He understands. And he’s just a good hitter, I said that before, he’s just a good hitter.”

The decision to stick with Hernández, who actually made an impressive catch running on a wet field and track earlier in the game, rather than go with a defensive replacement, ended up being a good one for the fourth-year manager.

Hernández has focused on his defense for a while now, and it’s something Martinez stressed when he spoke with the outfielder this spring.

“I told him that you’re going to have an opportunity to play up here and help us win games,” Martinez explained. “And part of it is to play defense. And I actually had him take fly balls in center field a lot when he was in Triple-A.

“He would stand in center field and work on his jumps during batting practice and he really responded well, and like I said, he’s doing well. He’s playing out there and I’m watching him, and he’s moving in counts, he’s getting behind the baseball, so he’s playing well.”

And he’s seeing it well at the plate too, as evidence by him barreling up the 100 MPH heater he sent out the other way to win it.

“In that particular situation, I’m looking for a fastball,” Hernández told reporters, through the team’s translator, Octavio Martinez, after the game. “Anything hard, whether it’s in, away, down, up, I’m just looking for something hard, and in that particular pitch, I took advantage, I just reacted quickly to the pitch and it worked out for me. I mean, the pitcher was throwing very hard, I knew that, so I was trying to prepare myself early, and I was able to do so in that swing, I was ready early and took a good swing at it.”

“I saw that he was throwing a straight four-seam fastball and a two-seamer,” Hernández said at another point of his approach in that at bat. “I felt that his breaking pitch, I believe it was a slider, was not doing much, wasn’t very effective for him today, and that particular pitch, I don’t know if he was trying to do a pitch — a two-seamer in that situation, but I felt like it stayed pretty, true, pretty straight, and I took advantage of it.”

“He was on the ball — from the first at bat he was on the ball really well today,” Martinez said of his left fielder after the four-hit game.

And he walked it off for the second time in his career. Hernández hit a walk-off blast for his first home run in the majors to beat the Philadelphia Phillies last September, after making his debut as a 32-year-old in 2020’s 60-game campaign, three years after he’d signed as a 29-year-old in 2017, two years after he defected from Cuba in 2015.

“He loves it,” Martinez said of Hernández’s celebration of the game-winning hit. “You saw him. Honestly, he’ll start saying some stuff that you really can’t understand and start talking really fast, but I love it and I’m proud of him. Like I said, he’s been up and down, he’s been through a long road to get to the major leagues, and he’s just having fun, and like I said, whenever he gets an opportunity he does well.”

What was Hernández saying as he celebrated the walk-off winner?

“To be honest, I don’t remember what I said,” Hernández admitted. “I don’t remember, sorry.”

But he thoroughly enjoyed it.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” he said.

“I was very excited and happy to end the game, especially that way, all I can say is that I did feel that I hit the ball very well and I almost felt like in that moment when I did connect, that I ended the game right there.”