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Game Report: Junior Fernandez

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PEORIA, Ill.— 

The Peoria Chiefs don’t hit many homers. In fact, they’ve hit just five in 44 games, tied for fewest in the Midwest League with Western Michigan.

They don’t do much offensively, period. Only one player has an OPS above .800, and that’s Eliezer Alvarez at .828. The bullpen has let them down at times as well; the relievers have an aggregate ERA of 3.79, and that was before they nearly let Wednesday’s game against Kane County get away.

What they do have, however, is starting pitching. The low Class A affiliate of the Cardinals has arguably the deepest--if not the best--rotation in the minors, with an aggregate ERA of 2.77. The six-man rotation comes at you with triple-digit guys such as Sandy Alcantara--who hit 100 three times Monday in striking out 14--and Ryan Helsely; a hard thrower like Derian Gonzalez, and pitchability guys such as Brennan Leitao and Jake Woodford.

On Wednesday night, Junior Fernandez--at No. 10 the highest-rated of the bunch in the Cardinals’ system entering the season--got his shot on the Dozer Park mound. Fernandez, compared to his rotation mates, has struggled, but again, it’s all relative. Coming into Wednesday, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound righthander was 3-3, 3.62 and he’d walked 15 in 34 1/3 innings.

Fernandez struggled early Wednesday, walking two and hitting a batter in the first two innings. He settled down and battled through 5 2/3 innings. He allowed just two hits and a run, but walked four and struck out six.

Pitching coach Dernier Orozco said what Fernandez is going through is not uncommon for a teenager.

“He’s overthinking, overthrowing too much,” Orozco said. “He’s a young kid (19) with a good fastball and he thinks he needs to strike out everybody. He’s a little inconsistent with command. As he matures a little more, he’ll know, ‘I don’t have to strike out everybody.’

“He’s going to be fun to watch.”

Fernandez sat 93-95 mph with his fastball, touching 96 a handful of times. He showed an above-average changeup at 78-82 mph, which is excellent separation, but the pitch had inconsistent shape. The slider shows good tilt, but was not consistent Wednesday and he didn’t throw it until the third inning.

“He didn’t have a feeling for it early,” Orozco said. “He was commanding the changeup a little more, so he was able to get even in that count with that.”

Fernandez occasionally rushes through his delivery and had some difficulty repeating the delivery, which begins with a quick double toe-tap. He seems more comfortable out of the stretch, where the delivery is more fluid.

Orozco attributed Fernandez’s walk issues this season to cold weather at the start of the Midwest League season, but said improvement is around the corner.

“Once he learns to better command his pitches, he’ll cut those walks down.”

As for his starters, Orozco beams like a proud father when he talks about them.

“Maybe there’s some competition between them, I don’t know, but it’s fun to watch,” he said. “You can see hard-throwers and some guys that don’t throw as hard, pitchability guys who have better command of the fastball, are more in control of the game.

“It’s fun to work with a staff like that.”

Peoria’s worked with a six-man starting staff the past 3-4 years, Orozco said, understanding that easing young pitchers into a workload can be vital for their careers.

“You get some extra rest for some guys. Two to three of the guys are 19 years old, you know,” he said. “It means 130 innings at end of the season instead of 170. That’s six or seven less starts.”

Most importantly, Orozco said, the pitchers work well together.

“Everybody gets along well. You’ll see them have fun when they stretch,” he said. “They have pretty good relationships, and they share their stuff, too. It’s good to see that.”

Donatella Struggles

Justin Donatella, the 6-foot-6 former UC San Diego starter, came in at 5-1, 1.44 for Kane County, having struck out 33 and walked just six in 43 2/3 innings prior to Wednesday’s game. Not overpowering despite his size, Donatella breezed through three innings before running into trouble in the fourth when he gave up long doubles to Brian O’Keefe and R.J. Dennard. There was some question, in fact, whether Dennard’s ball left the park, but ultimately umpires ruled it was a double.

Donatella, a 15th-round pick of the Diamondbacks last June, has a solid, repeatable delivery. His fastball sat 88-90, and he showed a slider with some tilt and an average changeup.

Donatella will have to be very fine to continue to succeed and when he wasn’t Wednesday, he was hit hard, allowing four doubles among the five hits he allowed against a team with not a lot of power.

Peralta Plays Peoria

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Jhonny Peralta completed the Peoria phase of his rehab with the game against Kane County. He went 0-for-3 with two ground balls and a fly out. He’ll next move to Double-A Springfield.

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