PITTSBURGH – Kiké Hernández looked puzzled as he looked down at an unfamiliar piece of equipment prior to Tuesday’s game against the Pirates.
In his first game since June 7, Hernández was reinserted into the Red Sox lineup at shortstop, a position where he hadn’t made a start this year. It was an assignment that Hernández hadn’t anticipated before manager Alex Cora approached him on Monday night – after deciding that Xander Bogaerts needed an extra day off after slamming a foul ball off the bottom of his shin against the Yankees over the weekend.
“I asked Kiké [on Monday], ‘Where do you want to play tomorrow, second or short?’” relayed Cora. “He said, ‘What?!’”
Hernández hadn’t even brought an infielder’s glove on the trip, and had to borrow one from teammate Trevor Story, resulting in the eyebrow-raised examination of his leather as he prepared for the game. Yet the surprise was a welcome one, given that it came with the chance – after an absence for 60 games over 69 days – to return to the Red Sox lineup. He went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts, but drove in a run with a sacrifice fly as part of a four-run first inning to kickstart a 5-3 Sox win.
“That was the first time I missed that much time in my career and I kind of felt like I stopped being part of the team,” said Hernández. “There wasn’t anything I could do to help the team. So, very frustrating. I felt like I lost a full season. But I’m glad to be healthy. Glad to be back, for sure.”
It was an outcome that Hernández did not take for granted, having thought on more than one occasion during his time on the injured list that he would not return in 2022.
So just how did an injured list stint for a hip flexor strain come to jeopardize his season? It was far more severe than such a simple description might suggest.
“The whole time I was on the IL, with [what was described as] a hip thing, but it wasn’t a hip thing that kept me out this long,” said Hernández. “It was a core injury.”
The 30-year-old said that he’d been dealing with unfamiliar hip flexor discomfort last season, but considered it a normal baseball injury. But it recurred this spring, and flared up at times over the first two months of the season – and became worse.
By June, he experienced crushing pain any time he had to run. He started to fear a chronic illness such as Crohn’s disease.
“Every time I ran, I wanted to crawl into a little ball in centerfield and just have somebody come pick me up and take me the dugout,” said Hernández.
He missed a game against the Angels on June 6 with an abdominal injury, then tried to come back on June 7.
“I was thinking that I could keep playing and nothing will get worse – I’ve been dealing with this pain for a long time and I can keep going,” said Hernández. “And I ended up suffering another injury.”
An MRI revealed not only a strain of the psoas muscle in his abdomen – which connects from the lower spine through the pelvis to the thigh – but a sizable hematoma within the muscle.
“There was a ball of blood about the size of a baseball sitting up there,” said Hernández.
That diagnosis immediately offered Hernández a cause to a season-long riddle about his offensive mechanics – why his swing (producing a .209/.273/.340 line) had been so broken, and why it had been so hard to fix.
Still, addressing the injury proved “one of the most traumatizing experiences I’ve ever been through,” said Hernández. The hematoma had to be drained with a lengthy needle inserted through Hernández’s back. He said that he passed out at least twice during the procedure.
“After we got done, the doctor told me they usually put people under for this,” said Hernández. “I told the doctor that usually they tell people that before the procedure.”
Recovery proved difficult. He attempted a rehab assignment with Triple-A Worcester in early July but had to shut it down after one game when pain reoccurred.
At the All-Star break – a month after his injury – Hernández got a PRP injection to accelerate the healing process. Finally, that put him on a path to pain-free swinging, and ultimately, after a four-game rehab stint, a return to the Sox lineup on Tuesday. For the first time since landing on the injured list – and perhaps even the first time this year – he looks healthy.
“Just watching him swing now, maybe he was feeling this before [going on the IL],” said Cora. “You can see his swings [look different] now. … He’s going to make a difference.”
That, certainly, is Hernández’s hope. He and the rest of the Red Sox understand their current plight – two games under .500, last place in the AL East, and five games back in a chase for the last of three wild-card spots.
And yet in the team’s growing return to health – with players like Michael Wacha, Hernández, and Rob Refsnyder (activated on Tuesday) now once again on the roster and Trevor Story getting closer to a return, there is suddenly a sense of lineup and roster depth that had been absent for much of the past two months.
In that development, the team sees optimism that has rarely been evident through the summer.
“I’ve played in seven straight Octobers. I’m not planning on not playing in this one,” said Hernández. “I’m here to help the boys get to October.”