Felix Hernandez continues building case to make Braves rotation

Braves starting pitcher Felix Hernandez delivers a pitch against the Baltimore Orioles at CoolToday Park on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, in North Port, Fla.  Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Braves starting pitcher Felix Hernandez delivers a pitch against the Baltimore Orioles at CoolToday Park on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, in North Port, Fla. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

The Braves defeated the Cardinals 3-1 on Thursday at CoolToday Park. It marked Felix Hernandez’s second start of spring, one that began rocky but ended strongly.

St. Louis found spots against Hernandez in the first inning, when they struck for three consecutive two-out hits – including a two-strike double that skirted down the third-base line by base-runner Yairo Munoz – to put the Cardinals up early. Hernandez struck out Max Schrock to escape a two-on threat.

It was the first run Hernandez allowed this spring after a scoreless debut against the Orioles five days ago, in which the righty retired six of seven hitters faced. He pitched a perfect second that included a flyout, grounder and strikeout.

After retiring the first two of the third, manager Brian Snitker made a pitching change. Hernandez finished having retired six consecutive Cardinals. He threw 41 pitches, 33 for strikes.

“The first inning was a little rough,” said Hernandez, who feels he’s a little further along than expected. “I was quick to the plate, made some good pitches, and they found some holes for hits. I made adjustments in the second and third, made better pitches. … I had great command of my fastball. I was locating well. It was moving a lot.”

His first two outings have been encouraging, showing that his off-speed stuff is crisp and his fastball can still be effective despite the drop in velocity. Hernandez hasn’t hovered in the mid-90s for a few seasons now, but he feels he’s gotten a grasp on how he’ll have to pitch for the remainder of his career.

“The ball was live today,” Snitker said. “It had good movement on his fastball. He knows what he’s doing. He has a feel for his pitches. He can change speeds. The longer he was out there, (it felt like) he could’ve kept going for a while, but we didn’t want him to. Next time out we’ll stretch him out again.”

Hernandez is among at least four pitchers competing to fill two vacancies in the Braves’ opening-day rotation. The Braves, shrouded in rotation uncertainties, would certainly benefit from “King Felix” pitching well enough to secure a spot. He should have three more exhibition starts to continue showing whether he’s trending in the right direction.

He’s confident about where he stands two starts into the competition. From Day 1, Hernandez has been adamant that if he’s healthy – and he said he’s 100 percent – he can be an asset for the Braves.

“I had a few offers from other teams, but I decided to come over here,” Hernandez said. “I thought this was the better spot for me. It’s a great organization, great group of guys. My goal is to be in the playoffs for the first time in my career.”

Other notable happenings from Thursday’s game:

» Dansby Swanson was a late add to the lineup after Adeiny Hechavarria was scratched with left oblique tightness. Swanson roped a double off Dakota Hudson into right-center for the go-ahead run in the fifth inning.

It was Swanson’s third hit in seven at-bats. He’s entering a pivotal season that should provide further clarity on who he is as a player – and if there’s more he can become.

» Marcell Ozuna had a quiet second game, going 0-for-1 with a walk against his former club. He did hammer a ball to left field, but the wind helped it fall just shy of the warning track.

Fellow outfielder Nick Markakis made his first appearance of the spring. Markakis knocked a double to right in his second at-bat. It’ll be an intriguing season for the 36-year-old, who’ll be taking on a part-time role for the first time in his career.

» Left-handed prospect Tucker Davidson, perfect in his two-inning debut, ran into adversity this time around. He allowed a single and walk in his first inning, the sixth, yet avoided harm. With two outs in the ensuing frame, the Cardinals loaded the bases on a single, walk and hit by pitch. Snitker replaced Davidson with Huascar Ynoa, who fanned Schrock to end the inning.

“I like him,” Snitker said. “Today was one of those things where, probably for all these guys, it’s dry, it’s cold. I’m sure grabbing on to the ball wasn’t the easiest thing to do. I’ve always liked that kid. I love his assortment. You see some things, some pitches, arm strength, ‘pitchability’ with him.”