PHILADELPHIA -- In the first inning of Wednesday's game, Cesar Hernandez put together what appeared to be a textbook leadoff at-bat. The Philadelphia Phillies second baseman fouled off three straight fastballs from Colorado Rockies starter Tyler Chatwood, then eyeballed a curve before lining a 90 mph cutter into the glove of a perfectly positioned Trevor Story at shortstop.
The month of May has been a slog for Hernandez and his team, and it would have been understandable if his mind lingered on his misfortune and he took his bad luck onto the field with him. But baseball provides few opportunities for daydreaming or self-pity. Larry Bowa, Philadelphia's bench coach and Hernandez's infield tutor, reminds him of that every chance he gets.
And sometimes the game serves up reminders, in the middle of nowhere.
In the top of the second inning, Colorado's Gerardo Parra smoked a ball up the middle. It looked like trouble -- until Hernandez hit the dirt, backhanded the ball and flipped to shortstop Freddy Galvis, whose throw to first base survived a replay challenge to give the Phillies an inning-ending double play.
While the Phillies went on to lose 7-2 and fall to 15-29, that crowd-pleasing snippet reflected the growth in Hernandez's game. It also justified the faith he has engendered from the man who serves as his baseball conscience and the little voice in his head.
The Phillies have entrusted their three young Latin American infielders -- Hernandez, Galvis and third baseman Maikel Franco -- to the mentorship of Bowa, a born overachiever who was 39 years old when he turned his last double play with the New York Mets in 1985. Bowa has a reputation for needling, prodding and pushing players beyond their comfort zones because he's a Type A personality by nature. But the main reason he persists is because nothing galls him more than players who squander their ability because they refuse to put in the work.
"We just had a meeting and I told these guys, 'Even if all you go 0-for-4, you should still be dead tired at the end of the game from backing up bases, moving on pitches and going out for relays,'" Bowa said. "These are things that come into play. You're in a position on the field where you're always in the middle of the action. Double plays are huge. It's the pitcher's best friend. So you have to stay alert.
"In the end, they know I'm trying to help them, and if I see them trying to take shortcuts, I'll let them know. It's a grind playing this game every day. And if you think you have it licked, it will bite you real quick."
The Phillies are in a 5-17 free fall this month, and Hernandez's production has cooled of late. On May 9 he was hitting .339, and everything was finding a hole. Since then he has endured a 12-for-63 funk that has dropped his batting average to .289. But he continues to lead the Phillies in hits, runs and steals, and he is tied for third among MLB second basemen with a plus-4 defensive runs saved. If the All-Star Game were today, he would be on a short list with outfielder Aaron Altherr as the Phillies player most worthy of a trip to Miami.
Hernandez has benefited from long hours in the cage with hitting coaches Steve Henderson and Matt Stairs, and manager Pete Mackanin has stuck by him through periods of doubt. But no relationship resonates more than the one he has forged with Philadelphia's bench and infield coach. Bowa is a 71-year-old California native with no off switch, and Hernandez is a humble, soft-spoken Venezuela native with a steadily evolving grasp of English. Somehow they've bridged the gap to make it work.
"Bowa has helped me tremendously," Hernandez said through Phillies interpreter Diego Ettedgui. "He's an old-school type of guy who can really help you a lot, and he'll spend as much time with you as you want. He's phenomenal. He's one of those people I'm very thankful to have on my side."
Hernandez, who turned 27 Tuesday, signed with the Phillies as an amateur free agent in 2006 and logged almost 2,700 minor league plate appearances before arriving at Citizens Bank Park to stay in 2014. He played second base, third base, shortstop and center field on his way through the system, and his versatility and athleticism made for some appealing best-case scenarios in the organizational game plan.
In his first three seasons, Hernandez tantalized the Phillies with his speed, range, quick hands and surprising flashes of power for his 5-foot-10, 160-pound frame. But he failed to put together good at-bats in big situations, showed a lack of concentration and subpar instincts on the bases and made enough mental errors to exasperate the fan base and the coaching staff.
A turning point in Hernandez's career path came during a series in Minnesota last June. Hernandez was muddling along at .248, and Mackanin was sufficiently fed up with the sight of him hitting lazy fly balls that he thought about inserting Andres Blanco at second base and giving Hernandez an extended seat on the bench. Before taking that drastic step, Mackanin asked Bowa to convey the gravity of the situation.
"Cesar sat with me on the bench, and I said, 'Do you know why you're not playing?'" Bowa recalled. "He said, "I'm getting a rest.' And I said, 'No, you're not getting a rest. Pete is tired of watching your swing, and you're gonna be sitting here with me if you don't start hitting down through the ball and hitting line drives and using your speed.' He sort of laughed, and I said, 'I'm serious, Cesar. You're not gonna play anymore. You're going to be a utility player.'
"It's all about confidence with this kid. You can use tough love, but you've got to pick your spots. If you're gonna say something to Cesar, it's gotta be him and I alone in a room."
Hernandez went 4-for-4 against the Twins in his next start, and the hits just kept on coming. He batted .327 with an .854 OPS the rest of the way and ranked sixth among qualifying MLB hitters with a .413 on-base percentage after the All-Star break. His aptitude for small ball was manifested in a league-high 34 infield hits and 15 bunt hits, the most by a Phillies player since Bowa laid down 15 bunt singles in 1975.
This year, despite his recent slump, Hernandez has continued to make strides in his all-around game.
"Cesar is an athletic freak," said Phillies first baseman Tommy Joseph. "I think he's starting to figure out what he's capable of doing if he comes to play every day. He'll take his walks. He can absolutely fly. And if you're not paying attention, he'll shoot you out of the yard. It's been impressive watching him take his game to another level."
In nearly three decades as a manager and coach with the Padres, Phillies, Angels, Mariners, Yankees and Dodgers, Bowa has worked with players with far more illustrious resumes. Derek Jeter was as professional as it gets, and Alex Rodriguez showed up every day ready to put in the time and the work.
Robinson Cano provided more of a challenge. He was in his second season with the Yankees when Bowa joined the staff as third-base coach in 2006. Manager Joe Torre wanted Bowa to put in extra work with the infielders, so Bowa made a pact with Cano and A-Rod at the start of spring training: He told them to show up every morning at 8:30, and he would hit them ground balls on the back diamond at Legends Field.
The first two days, both players reported promptly for duty at 8:30 a.m. The third day, A-Rod arrived on time, but Cano was nowhere to be found.
"Robbie finally shows up just as we're ready to leave, and I told him, 'I told you what time I want you out there. I'm sacrificing my time, and if you don't have enough in your head to know I'm helping you, I'm done with you,'" Bowa said.
"Three days later he comes out, and I asked him, 'Are you ready to work every day?' And he said, 'Yeah, I'm ready to work every day.' From that day on, I had him."
While the relationship was strained at the start, Cano never forgot Bowa's contribution. In December 2013, Cano signed a 10-year, $240 million contract with Seattle. When the Mariners traveled to Philadelphia for a series in 2014, Bowa showed up at Citizens Bank Park and found a Rolex watch and a thank-you note from Cano in his locker.
Like Cano, the young Phillies infielders occasionally gripe about Bowa's anal-retentive approach to baseball instruction. If they fail to back up a base, forget the number of outs in an inning or fail to get in proper position on a relay throw, chances are Bowa will be waiting in the dugout to harp on the oversight.
But they also know that Bowa has earned the right to pass judgment based on his 2,191 career hits, five All-Star Game appearances and two Gold Gloves over 16 seasons in the majors. When Hernandez arrived in Philadelphia and learned how beloved Bowa was in the city, it made a lasting impression.
"Of course, we complain from time to time, just like kids complain about teachers," Hernandez said. "But we know he wants the best for us and expects the best out of all of us, and we appreciate the help. The best advice he's given me is to play hard for 27 outs and never give up. It doesn't matter if I'm 0-for-4 or if I'm going through a rough time personally, the next play might still turn the game around."
Those little touches can make a big difference. Hernandez has begun using an iPad to prepare for games at the urging of Bowa, and he impresses Bowa with his grasp of defensive positioning during pregame meetings.
Bowa, in turn, is finally learning the value of patience as he watches Hernandez, Galvis and Franco alternate between good days and bad. Not that he would ever allow something to slide.
"I know guys can be a little leery of me at first," Bowa said. "I can be overaggressive, no question. That's my personality. And it got me in trouble at first, because I expected everyone to work as hard as I did. I would hit in the cage for hours and take hundreds of ground balls, and I look back now and think, 'I overdid it. What a crazy nut I was.' These kids don't have to do that because they're better than me. They have tremendous ability that I never had."
During the dog days of May, a 71-year-old coach and 27-year-old middle-infield talent from different worlds rely on their mutual love of baseball to see them through. When Larry Bowa talks, Cesar Hernandez listens. And they have both emerged better for it.
The evolution of Cesar Hernandez comes courtesy of his 71-year-old bench coach