HOUSTON — Kiké Hernández played in 58 postseason games for the Dodgers before he signed with the Red Sox, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise he’s comfortable in the cauldron of October baseball.
But what he’s doing this fall is something out of the David Ortiz playbook.
Hernández homered twice, doubled, singled, and saved two runs with a diving catch in center field in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Friday.
That somehow wasn’t enough to prevent a 5-4 victory by the Houston Astros.
“It would have been a lot cooler if we won the game,” Hernández said.
The Sox had a 3-1 lead through five innings before the bullpen puzzle manager Alex Cora was trying to construct fell off the kitchen table.
Tanner Houck allowed a two-run homer by Jose Altuve in the sixth inning. Carlos Correa’s solo shot off Hansel Robles an inning later gave Houston the lead.
Altuve then added a sacrifice fly in the ninth that proved to be the difference.
It was the difference because Hernández led off the top of the ninth with a home run that clanged off a billboard above the left field bleachers. It briefly quieted the crowd of 40,534 at Minute Maid Park.
But Ryan Pressly was able to retire Kyle Schwarber, Xander Bogaerts, and Rafael Devers on groundouts.
Hernández left the dugout with a blank expression, a career game wasted, as a parade of teammates patted him on the back.
Hernández is 14 of 28 in six postseason games this season with four doubles, four home runs, eight RBIs, and seven runs scored.
“Enrique right now is en fuego,” Cora said.
Hernández’s 13 hits in the last four games are a record for any four-game span in postseason history.
“I’m having a lot of fun. It’s a blast. It’s October, and these games tend to be a lot of fun,” Hernández said. “A lot of adrenaline, a lot of electricity in the crowd.”
Cora has felt since spring training that signing with the Sox would provide a springboard for Hernández to show he’s more than just a productive utility player, a role he shined in for the Dodgers.
That Hernández had a .786 OPS, 58 extra-base hits, and 84 runs scored over 134 regular-season games helped prove that point, but not quite as decisively as Cora envisioned. The postseason has done that. Hernández has launched himself into the national spotlight.
“I haven’t seen a hitter as hot in the last week as Kiké Hernández,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said.
Baker was in the middle of his mandatory in-game interview with Fox when Hernández launched a 440-foot homer to left field off Houston starter Framber Valdez in the third inning.
“Oh, lord,” Baker said as Hernández connected. The ball sailed out to left center, over everything.
Later, after his team had won a wild game that saw the teams use 16 pitchers, Baker could chuckle a bit about it.
“It’s not a good feeling when you’re live on-air and see that ball leaving the ballpark,” he said.
Hernández doubled to left field in the fourth inning when a flare dropped in. He was stranded when Schwarber and Bogaerts struck out against Cristian Javier.
That was a running theme for the Sox, who had 10 hits and drew four walks but were 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position and left nine runners on base.
“We didn’t do a good job of adding on to the lead, and at the end of the day, that’s why we lost,” Hernández said. “We weren’t able to add any more runs. We went up 3-1 and we stayed there until the ninth inning.”
Defensively, Hernández made the play of the game in the second inning.
With the bases loaded and two outs. Michael Brantley sent a sinking line drive to center field. Hernández raced in and caught the ball as he sprawled in the grass. It was a grab reminiscent of the one Andrew Benintendi made here to end the 2018 ALCS.
“The thing with him, it’s his first step, and his first step is elite,” Cora said. “He does an outstanding job studying hitters and staying with our defensive positioning.
“And then he makes adjustments. He has been doing that for us for a while. I think that’s the reason we’re playing better defense because he is out there, and he has been able to slow it down for everybody. He had a great game.”
Hernández also made a running catch in the fifth inning to steal a hit away from Kyle Tucker that likely would have scored a run. The ball swerved a bit and Hernández had to reach back to make the catch.
“For the most part the balls that get hit and they knuckle are the low liners, and that ball, I mean Tim Wakefield, R.A. Dickey, they got nothing on that ball to be honest with you,” Hernández said. “I was glad that I was able to somehow put my glove out and catch that ball.”
This from a player the Sox expected would play mostly second base this season.
The Sox have at least three postseason games remaining. What will Hernández do next?
“This is going to be a heck of a series, and it was a heck of a Game 1,” he said. “We expect nothing less [Saturday]. It’s going to be intense and it’s going to take everything we’ve got to be able to get past these guys.”