MYRTLE BEACH, S.C.—When UC Irvine's Brian Hernandez stepped in against North Carolina State's Cory Mazzoni in the first inning of their teams' contest last Friday, it was an at-bat more than a year in the making.
Hernandez, a 6-foot-1 third baseman, was the Anteaters' top recruit in 2008. He was coming off a sophomore season at JC of the Canyons (Calif.) in which he was named his conference's player of the year after hitting .454 and leading all California junior college players in hits (84) and doubles (26). He was UCI's top incoming recruit that fall and would've slotted right into the middle of the Anteaters' lineup, which he did, only a year later than planned.
Hernandez was ruled academically ineligible for the 2009 season because of what Irvine coach Mike Gillespie calls a "UCI paperwork screw-up". While the Anteaters went on to have a fine season without him, spending several weeks at No. 1 before eventually being knocked out of the Irvine Regional by red-hot Virginia, Hernandez was confined to a cheerleading role. He was still eligible to practice with the team and did his best to stay sharp, working out with his teammates and standing in when pitchers were throwing bullpens.
It would have been easy for the situation to eat away at Hernandez, but he had a good support structure in place with his teammates, who helped him stay upbeat.
"I still got to practice and be a part of the guys," Hernandez said. "The guys were really great. They knew that I was kind of down a little bit and the guys really helped me out and helped me stay up."
Hernandez's ability to keep a positive attitude through the whole process didn't go unnoticed by his coach, either.
"He could've been bitter, just simply bitter," Gillespie said. "But the fact is he was anything but. I think he showed really uncommon maturity and actual grace through the whole thing. He understood, once the whole thing was explained to him, that it was something that could happen, shouldn't happen, but could happen, and so he channeled his thoughts and efforts to doing well in school, and he did."
Hernandez didn't miss a practice all year, and was finally able to get back into some game action over the summer with Yarmouth-Dennis of the Cape Cod League. He needed some time to get going but wound up hitting .244 with three home runs in 131 at-bats. Unfortunately, his troubles weren't over. Hernandez participated in some scrimmages in the fall of 2008 for the Anteaters against some California juco teams, but he was still counted as ineligible at the time, and thus was suspended for the Anteaters' 2010 opening weekend series with Loyola Marymount. Gillespie himself—who had to take a three-game suspension last season for the same incident—took the blame for that error and said it was a "dramatic miscarriage of justice" that Hernandez had to sit out for Gillespie's error.
Finally eligible to play, Hernandez was certainly ready to go by the time the Anteaters arrived in Myrtle Beach, S.C., for the Baseball at the Beach tournament last weekend. He flew out to shallow center field in that first at-bat against Mazzoni and went on to go 1-for-4 in his first game back, having seen a steady diet of offspeed pitches most of the day ("That's kind of what you expect in the three-hole," he said). He had his first big game on Sunday against James Madison, going 3-for-6 and coming up with a bases loaded double in the third inning and an RBI single in the ninth, finishing the weekend with a 7-for-18 line.
Gillespie, who called Hernandez "a doubles machine," didn't hesitate to give Hernandez one of the prime spots in the UCI lineup, batting him third in all four games the Anteaters played. Not that that should be a surprise, since Gillespie already believes Hernandez is one of the Anteaters' best hitters and a guy they'll want up in crucial situations. Hernandez can be a tough out for any kind of pitcher and can handle the small ball tasks West Coast baseball demands. What has been a surprise for Gillespie is the prominent role Hernandez has already taken on in the Irvine clubhouse.
"I've come to be optimistic and expect him to be a good college player, that's what he is," Gillespie said. "Because I didn't know him before a year and a half ago, I couldn't have known that he would be the leadership presence that he is. Typically that's going to be returning players and guys that've been in the program a couple years, and so he's a relative rookie even though he's been around here for a year, he didn't play and it seems to me that it's not easy for a guy like that to just step in there."
Hernandez isn't an overbearing presence in the clubhouse, but he's not afraid to speak up and "direct traffic," as Gillespie put it. The coach praised Hernandez's attitude and energy level as the kinds of things that command respect. As for what he's been through over the past year, Hernandez seems to have the right perspective there as well.
"Everybody has to face some adversity, you just have to deal with it," Hernandez said. "I feel like it made me a better person and a better baseball player having to deal with adversity like that."
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