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Fish living large as playoffs draw near

Hernandez says teammates enjoy club 'atmosphere'

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Fish starter Nick Hernandez has been a big part of the club's success in 2014. He will pitch Game 2 of a doubleheader tonight.

SARAH TAYLOR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Fish starter Nick Hernandez has been a big part of the club's success in 2014. He will pitch Game 2 of a doubleheader tonight. Photo Store

EVERY day it seems, the decidedly festive mood around the Goldeyes clubhouse grows, gaining speed as the August wins mount and the American Association playoffs draw close.

The Fish, they're taking selfies. There are reports of hijinks and howling pranks. Before they scraped their way to a 2-0 win over the New Jersey Jackals on Wednesday, a posse of players donned goofy costumes to film a bit for Goldeyes TV. Shortstop Tyler Kuhn pulled on a hotdog mascot suit; outfielder Reggie Abercrombie stuffed a zebra shirt to pose as a beer-gutted referee.

And when you ask pitcher Nick Hernandez about the "atmosphere" around the team, well, he knows exactly what you mean.

"It's become somewhat of a running joke," Hernandez said with a grin. "We just kind of take every day for what it's worth. We realize the season's running towards the end, playoffs don't last very long. So we're just trying to enjoy each other's company as much as possible before we go our separate ways."

It's been a solid season for the Fish and these are the most halcyon days. Before Thursday's scheduled series opener against the Sioux Falls Canaries was drowned out by torrential rain (they'll play a doubleheader tonight beginning at 5 p.m. instead), the Goldeyes were riding a five-game win streak, and had won nine of their last 10 games. The game that clinches the North Division championship could come any time now.

There are a lot of things the Fish can thank for that. They've gotten plenty of hitting. Meanwhile, the rival St. Paul Saints plummeted down the standings when they had a chance to give the Goldeyes a run for the division's top spot. And, above all, the Fish have rolled through August with phenomenal starting pitching.

Look, it's fair to say in the last four weeks, Chris Salamida, Ethan Hollingsworth and Hernandez have all hurled the best games of their seasons. Hollingsworth came oh-so-close to throwing a no-hitter against the Jackals on Tuesday, but settled for a scoreless complete game.

The very next night, Salamida slammed the Jackals, going 7 2/3 innings to give the Fish a chance to win 2-0.

And Hernandez, well, the results speak for themselves. On Aug. 17, he pitched seven innings of shutout baseball against Sioux Falls, allowing only two hits in the 14-0 win, and was named the league's pitcher of the week. He also kept the Sioux City Explorers off the scoreboard through seven on Aug. 6. And yeah, he's also noticed the starting rotation seems to be rolling together.

"It's definitely the right time of the year to be peaking," he said. "The bullpen's been doing their job, but our starting rotation so far, it's like we're feeding off each other. It's not necessarily, 'I want to do better than that guy.' It's more like, 'I want to replicate what that guy did. It's been pretty special so far. The last five games, every starter's gotten a win, and we've gone at least six innings... it's been a pretty special time."

In some ways, Hernandez is still living this whole stretch as something of a surprise. He came to the Goldeyes this season after a few years tooling around the Philadelphia Phillies system. He made it as far as high-A with them in 2013 -- then suddenly found himself in Canada for the first time, still chasing the dream.

"I didn't know what to expect," he said. "I kind of thought I'd be able to throw my hat in there and succeed."

It wasn't that easy. Hernandez got hit around a bit early in the season, giving up 12 earned runs through his first three games and 13 2/3 innings. The Goldeyes went on to win those games thanks to heavy run support, but Hernandez was shaken.

"I realized, it's not independent ball because they couldn't make it in affiliated," he said. "It's affiliated guys whose time ran short, or injuries, or they just never got a shot, but are well-deserving... it was definitely an eye-opener for me."

"I had to sit down with our pitching coach, Jamie Vermilyea, and he told me, 'You have good enough stuff to pitch in this league, and you have to start pitching, because they're going to keep hitting you around if you don't make those adjustments.' "

Yeah, he made them. Now, Hernandez is sitting on a shiny 3.34 ERA, which is sixth-best among league starters.

He'll go again tonight, in the second game of the doubleheader against the visiting Canaries. They've been good to him so far. It was in Sioux Falls where he first turned his game around, giving up just one run in 6 2/3 innings and claiming his first win. It was in Sioux Falls again last week where he claimed his 10th. Only two pitchers in the league have more.

"It's kind of weird the way things go around," he said. "This is the best style of baseball I've ever played. Seeing these hitters... I'll put this team up against any team I ever played for."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 22, 2014 C4

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