1999 was disappointing for the Devil Rays as they won only 69 games in their second season. However, closer Roberto Hernandez brought excitement to Tampa Bay by nailing down a career-high 43 saves that season, earning him the team MVP award.
The Devil Rays signed the free agent Hernandez, not to be confused with the current Rays pitcher, during Spring Training of 1998, when he reported with tendinitis but high hopes of following up a big season . On April 12, 1998, Hernandez finished off the Devil Rays’ first save against the Chicago White Sox, his former team. Hernandez slowly but surely managed to things around in 1998, finishing with a 2-6 record, 4.04 ERA, and 26 saves, managing a 3.04 ERA and 24 saves from May 10th to the end of the season.
1999 proved to be one of Hernandez’s best seasons, as he recorded a career-high 43 saves in 72 games, which stood as the Rays’ team saves record until 2010. Hernandez struck out 69 and finished the season with a 3.07 ERA, allowing just 1 home run the entire season. Hernandez’s 3.07 ERA especially stands out because he was the only D-Rays pitcher minimum 25 innings to manage an ERA under 4.00. It was an amazing season and one that deserved recognition.
One of Hernandez’s most memorable games during the 1999 season was his 35th save, when he secured the Devil Rays’ lead over the Chicago White Sox. On August 26, 1999, Tampa Bay was ahead 8-1 after 5 innings, but White Sox catcher Brook Fordyce hit a two-run homerun to spark Chicago’s offense and when Hernandez took the mound in the ninth inning, the Devil Rays led only 9-7. Hernandez stopped the bleeding there, retiring the final three batters in order to seal the win. After the game, Manager Larry Rothschild addressed the Sarasota Herald-Tribune about Hernandez and said, “It’s nice to have Roberto. That tells you what he means to this team. We did just about everything we could to give it back.”
Hernandez racked up several honors and awards during his monumental season, which included an appearance in the 1999 All-Star Game and a 10th-place finishing in the AL Cy Youngvoting. The closer lead the American League with most games finished, racking up 66 and tied with Texas’ John Wetteland for the second most saves in the American League. By the end of his tenure with the Rays, Hernandez compiled 101 saves, still the most in team history to this day.
As the Devil Rays continued to struggle during their second season, Hernandez’s accomplishments provided hope to the young expansion team. The Rays are known for their pitching staff today, with lefty David Price becoming the first Ray to win a Cy Young Award this past season and Fernando Rodney delivering a season for the ages. While the future is bright for the Rays and their quite competent pitching staff, we still have to appreciate the groundwork laid by Hernandez and others in the Rays’ early years. One question, though: with the “new” Roberto Hernandez joining the Rays this season, can he live up to the precedent set by the pitcher whose name he shares?