In what has turned out to be a momentous college baseball career, Brian Hernandez has experienced five years, four positions and three schools. But one constant has always been those six steps.
"I try to always take six steps from the on-deck circle to home plate," said the UC Irvine senior third baseman and closer, whose ability to shift about the same distance between third base and the mound this season has made him the Anteaters' most valuable player.
Hernandez leads the Anteaters (35-13, 13-5 in the Big West Conference) in batting (.357) and hits (71), heading into a three-game series at UC Riverside beginning Friday at 6 p.m. He has 28 runs batted in, and is also a stalwart defensively for UCI, ranked No. 16 in two national polls.
On the mound, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound right-hander, who had not pitched since high school, is 3-0 with a team-best 10 saves (which ranks No. 28 in NCAA Division I). He has a 3.00 earned-run average with 19 strikeouts in 24 innings. He has allowed 24 hits and walked 10.
"He has been a phenomenal player all year," said UCI Coach Mike Gillespie, who has continually praised all facets of Hernandez's game, including his work ethic and leadership.
Hernandez has worked particularly hard to hone his defensive game, while reprising his pitching role, and altering his approach at the plate due to the NCAA's adoption of less-explosive bats, as well as a lingering wrist injury.
"I'm more of a line-drive hitter this year," said Hernandez, who leads all Big West players with 24 multiple-hit games. "Last year, I was trying to drive balls over outfielders' heads. This year, it's tougher to do that, so I'm trying to keep the ball in front of the outfielders and not worry too much about power."
Hernandez showed power last season, despite the worsening sprained wrist. He finished hitting .322 (.371 in conference games) with 44 RBIs, four home runs, 19 doubles, two triples, 76 hits and 22 multiple-hit games. He earned first-team all-conference recognition and helped lead the 'Eaters to their sixth straight trip to an NCAA regional.
This season, he has 10 doubles, one triple and is one of four UCI regulars with no home runs.
In addition to improving his defense, after his inaugural season at third base as a junior (he was a designated hitter his freshman season at Division II Cal State Los Angeles and played second base while hitting .450 with seven homers and 42 extra-base hits as the Western State Conference Player of the Year as a sophomore at College of the Canyons), the coaches elected to try him as a pitcher beginning in December.
With a live arm, brazen competitiveness, and a newly developed changeup, Hernandez earned the confidence of Gillespie and first-year pitching coach Jason Dietrich. He was named the team's closer in January and has excelled in that role.
"It's an incredible feeling," Hernandez said of recording the game's final out. "Growing up, I was always a starting pitcher, so I never knew what it was like to close. But ending the game and knowing you played a big role in ending the game feels great."
Hernandez said his double duty has made it more difficult to feel great physically this season and, he admits, his wrist is still less than 100%. He has also dislocated a finger and experienced back pain this season, but has yet to miss a game. His 199 at-bats are tops on the team.
"My teammates know I am going to give them all I have, and they know that I'm going to be out there, no matter what," Hernandez said.
An incessantly curious student of the game, Hernandez admits his constant passion for knowledge can exasperate some of his teammates, as well as others.
"I love baseball and I love breaking it down," he said. "I feel like the more you talk about it, the more you pick up little things. I think I annoy people because I want to talk baseball so much, but the more you know, the better you are going to become. My girlfriend always tells me, 'You need to stop thinking about baseball for five minutes,' but I don't think that's ever going to happen."
Hernandez, a three-time All-Mission League performer at Alemany High, said he used a redshirt season in 2009 to enhance his knowledge of the game. It was then that he was further convinced he will coach when his playing career is over.
"Coaching is what I was born to do," said Hernandez, who has already graduated with a degree in sociology and a minor in education.
But those playing days figure to continue. Hernandez was drafted in the 39th round by the Cleveland Indians after his redshirt season. He said he received some phone calls from teams interested in drafting him in the middle rounds during the 2010 draft, but he discouraged them from picking him, saying the middle-round money was not enough to keep him from returning to UCI for his senior season.
Hernandez's dedication is apparent. He said he typically arrives between three and four hours before game time to go about his myriad preparation rituals. He also admitted to a lengthy list of personal superstitions (such as the six steps) and he said the camaraderie he experiences with his teammates is another one of his favorite things about the game.
But before he ventures off to a likely opportunity in the professional ranks, he said he still has work to do at UCI.
"I think there is something special we can accomplish," Hernandez said. "I feel like we are starting to play the way we need to play at the right time. We have different guys stepping up and, I don't know, there is just something about this team … I'm really excited about it."