POWER PITCHING CHRIS HERNANDEZ LANDED IN COLLEGE WORLD SERIES

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

In honor of the College World Series, which is getting underway.

Redlands’ Chris Hernandez had a nice fastball, good command.

Chris Hernandez
Redlands’ Chris Hernandez got his shot at the College World Series — twice, in fact, with the University of South Carolina (photo by USC).

He was part of some nice Redlands High School teams which, for some reason, has never reached a CIF Southern Section championship game in well over 100 years of taking the diamond.

Out a fairly impressive list of Redlands High pitchers — Shaun Benzor, Richie Burgess, Ben Washburn, John Herrera, David Quinowski, plus MLB veteran Ed Vande Berg and current RHS pitching coach Gary Pool — Hernandez was one of the best of that Terrier chain, sans Vande Berg.

In one game article describing his pitching, I’d referred to Hernandez as a “non-power” pitcher, noting observations made by three scouts having while observing.

It’s the kind of thing writers long for while watching a prep game. Hearing accounts of scouts is like tossing out meat for a tiger.

That observation drew disapproval from that particular prospect, who definitely had college and a pro career in mind for himself.

A few days later after that article, he got that off his chest, telling me that, indeed, “I AM a power pitcher.”

His years in the minor leagues — six seasons in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ chain while reaching the Triple A level — might overlook some brilliant collegiate campaigns.

Hernandez’s travels took him first to Riverside City College and, eventually, landing at the University of South Carolina.

While watching him work for Redlands — its PONY All-Stars and, eventually, with the high school Terriers — Hernandez was part of a nice crop of ballplayers.

It led him to RCC, which notched back-to-back State junior college championships in 2000 and 2001 under a future Hall of Fame coach, Dennis Rogers.

That was the launching pad that led Hernandez to South Carolina for his junior and senior seasons in 2002 and 2003. The Gamecocks, one of seven teams from the baseball-rich Southeastern Conference to reach the NCAA Division 1 playoffs, made it to the College World Series in both years.

So here was Hernandez, a two-time All-Orange Empire Conference selection at RCC.

In 2002, the Gamecocks (57-18) had to get past Virginia Commonwealth, North Carolina and Miami in the Columbia, N.C. Super Regional.

At the CWS, Georgia Tech took down USC, 13-0, in the opening round.

Wins over Nebraska, a rematch over Georgia Tech, then a sweep over Clemson lifted the Gamecocks into the championship game against Texas.

The Longhorns, coached by the legendary Augie Garrido, beat the Gamecocks, 12-6.

Playing against such future MLB prospects as Huston Street (Texas), Kahlil Greene (Clemson), Nebraska’s Drew Anderson, Todd Sears and Brian Duensing, Aaron Hill (LSU), Stanford’s Ryan Garko, Jed Lowrie and Carlos Quentin, Chris Ianetta (North Carolina) — to name a few.

Hernandez (1-1, 3.27) pitched in 13 games that season.

South Carolina’s talent pool that season? Catcher Landon Powell (Oakland), pitcher Matt Campbell (Kansas City) and shortstop Drew Meyer (Texas Rangers) were eventual first-round round picks.

On a 45-22 squad in 2003, there were no less than 17 Gamecock players targeted by MLB teams. Powell, third baseman Brian Buscher (San Francisco), outfielder Kevin Melillo (Oakland) and infielder Steve Tolleson (Minnesota) were among those that eventually reached the majors.

Hernandez was 5-5 that season (3.32 ERA, 25 games, 84 innings), pitching three complete games though he appeared mostly in relief. Eight teams from the SEC battled their way into the NCAA playoffs.

It was Stanford that ultimately knocked out the Gamecocks in their chase to another CWS championship — twice, in fact, 8-0 and 13-6. In between those losses, USC had stayed alive with 11-10 win over Louisiana State.

LSU couldn’t hold on, despite the presence of future MLB reliever Brian Wilson, who closed down San Francisco’s 2010 World Series championship over Texas.

Rice (Texas) University beat Stanford two out of three to nail down the 2003 title.

As for his opponents, imagine pitching to future major leaguers like Ryan Garko, Jed Lowrie and Carlos Quentin, who were noted Stanford sluggers.

The Cardinal had 23 MLB draftees that year, including four No. 1 picks (Quentin, Lowrie, Danny Putnam and John Mayberry, Jr.), a No. 2 (Donny Lucy) and No. 3 (Garko).

With the Pirates, Hernandez made two all-star teams, chunking out 23 wins, 56 saves and a 3.22 ERA in 230 professional games between 2003 and 2009.

The Pirates?

Hernandez had some good seasons — 24 saves, 1.93 with the Class A Hickory Crawdads in his first full season as a pro, 6-1 record and a 2.86 ERA with Class AA Altoona Croon in 2007. At the Class AAA level, he spent parts of two seasons with the Indianapolis Indians of the International League.

He was 0-4 over 23 games in between a 4-0, 2.61 stint back at Altoona.

Hernandez was teammates with future MVP Andrew McCutchen, plus solid future MLB players like Neil Walker and Steve Pearce, both No. 1 draft picks. So were pitchers Bryan Bullington and Sean Burnett, who never quite made the grade at the MLB level.

Andrew McCutchen (Flickr)
Future MVP Andrew McCutchen was a minor league teammate of Chris Hernandez while the two worked their way up toward a hopeful Major League Baseball career in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ chain (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

In all, Hernandez struck out 353 hitters over 324 1/3 innings as a seven-year minor leaguer — not bad for a power pitcher.

As for the College World Series, consider this: Hernandez first showed up there with the Gamecocks in 2002, repeating the appearance in 2003.

One season later, another ex-Terrier, Robbie Hudson, made the first of two straight trips to Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb. — site of the annual CWS.

The Redlands Connection was in full effect at college’s biggest baseball showcase.