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The Miami Marlins had a plan in place for Elieser Hernandez. They saw him as a full-time starting pitcher and wanted him to prepare as such.
So when Hernandez got the call to start on Tuesday night in place of the injured Caleb Smith (left-hip inflammation) after dominating for Triple A New Orleans, he took full advantage until one play in the sixth inning changed the course of his outing.
Hernandez, the 24-year-old Venezuelan right-hander the Marlins acquired in the Rule 5 draft ahead of the 2018 season, threw a career-long 5 2/3 innings with seven strikeouts, one walk and one hit by pitch but was charged with three earned runs — two in that sixth inning — before the bullpen had another off night in the Marlins’ 7-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Marlins (23-42) have now lost six consecutive games — including all five to start this nine-game homestand — after winning 13 of their previous 18 before this stretch.
“Frustrating ending,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said.
Hernandez had runners on the corners with one out in the sixth after Paul Goldschmidt hit a double to the left-field wall and Marcell Ozuna reached on an infield single. Yadier Molina then lined out to Miguel Rojas, who tried to double up Ozuna at first for the inning-ending double play. The throw to Garrett Cooper sailed wide, allowing Goldschmidt to bolt for home plate. Cooper’s throw to Jorge Alfaro at the plate was not in time, with Goldschmidt slipping under the tag for the go-ahead run.
“I feel fearless. I always play to win. I don’t play to make errors or avoid errors,” Rojas said. “That’s part of the game. ... The ball gets away, and that’s what happened.”
Ozuna came home after relief pitchers Jarlin Garcia and Jeff Brigham walked three consecutive batters to give the Cardinals (32-33) an insurance run and then Adam Conley gave up a season-high four runs in the eighth and ninth innings.
It put a sobering end to Hernandez’s night after he was generally effective on the mound. He threw 96 pitches, including 66 for strikes.
His four-seam fastball hovered in the low 90s, topping out at 94.1 mph. He paired that with a high-70s slider that he effectively threw for strikes while also occasionally weaving in a change-up that averaged 82.1 mph.
Hernandez’s lone earned run surrendered on Tuesday came in the second when Harrison Bader hit an RBI triple to left-center field that scored Kolten Wong.
Hernandez worked himself into a minor jam in the fourth inning, giving up back-to-back one-out singles to Yadier Molina and Kolten Wong before catcher Jorge Alfaro gave him a quick pep talk at the mound. Hernandez proceeded to get Dexter Fowler to ground into a double play following a seven-pitch at-bat to end the inning — the first of five consecutive batters retired before giving up the double to Goldschmidt in the sixth.
“[Alfaro] told me to just stick to the plan, to feel more confident and go out there and win,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez threw 96 pitches, including 66 for strikes.
“He’s always been a really smart kid that doesn’t seem to get rattled,” Mattingly said pregame. “... I trust his stuff.”
His “stuff” was a reason the Marlins were willing to take him in the Rule 5 draft and have him go through growing pains last year.
As a Rule 5 selection, Hernandez had to stay on the Marlins’ 25-man active roster for at least 90 days in the 2018 season. Despite playing no higher than the Class A-Advanced level before that season, Hernandez made 32 total appearances and six spot starts for the Marlins, compiling a 5.21 ERA with 45 strikeouts to 27 walks.
“He didn’t quite know when he was going to pitch,” Mattingly said. “He pitched in games where we were way behind or way ahead. Those aren’t always great situations to pitch in.”
This year, Hernandez showed in Triple A New Orleans just how capable he is to handle a starting role. He carried a 1.13 ERA through nine starts and struck out 69 batters in 48 innings of work. He gave up no more than two runs in a given start.
That effectiveness was on display Tuesday, but ended with the Marlins losing a second consecutive game against the Cardinals due to a mid-inning error and lack of offense.
The Marlins recorded just five hits on Tuesday and scored their only run when Rojas’ RBI single plated Harold Ramirez in the fourth.
The Marlins have scored just 10 runs over this six-game losing skid, six of which came in a 12-inning loss to the Braves on Sunday.