For nearly a decade Elian Herrera had played minor league ball. He spent almost ten years slowly advancing through the ranks; the Dodgers’ facility in the Dominican Republic, Rookie Ball, Single-A, Double-A, Triple-A, BACK to Double-A. He’d seen pitches at every level of the game, except the majors.
Why should this season be any different?
“Elian’s been solid,” Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly told MLB.com after Herrera’s 17th game with the Dodgers, where he went 2-for-5 with two RBI. “It’s like you’re getting as close as you can to a grizzled veteran coming up from the Minors. Nine years of polish and learning to play the game. He’s been through a lot.”
But that still doesn’t explain it.
Why should the team with the best record in baseball find a spot for a guy that’s barely played a full season at Double-A? Why should he hit safely in 15 of 19 Major League contests? Why should he have three game-winning RBI already? Why should he, over five other players that were called up, make the cut instead of them?
“It’s (his success) from both sides of the plate,” Mattingly said. “He’s shown power, he’s had good at-bats, he’s shown awareness, he can steal a base, he can try to get a bunt down. He’s got a lot of different things to his game. It’s not like he’s a one-dimensional guy that came up and got hot. He looks like he belongs here.”
He also looked like he belonged with the Isotopes.
Before the call-up on May 14, Herrera was hitting .358 and on a 17-game hitting streak. He was a huge part of the ‘Topes’ winning ways, helping the team climb from the basement of the PCL American Southern Division to sole possession of first.
“It’s a great story,” Isotopes Manager Lorenzo Bundy said of Herrera. “He came here and worked his way into the lineup. He was part of the reason we turned our season around. He’s gone up there (to the Dodgers) and he’s definitely holding his own and doing a great job.”
Another thing that may have separated Herrera is his versatility. In 28 games with Albuquerque, he played six different positions on the diamond, and outside of catching or pitching, saw time everywhere except right field. At the plate, he mostly fit into the leadoff role but also had success batting in the bottom end of the lineup.
He’s the definition of utility player, and with consistent numbers at so many spots on the diamond and in the batting order, finding playing time with the Dodgers wasn’t the point of concern for Herrera or Bundy.
“The main question was could Elian handle the pressure,” Bundy said. “He’s played in pressure type situations before, but was it Dodger Stadium with 45,000 people? No. So I said the only way you find out is to give him a shot.”
In return, Herrera’s been ripping shots off any and all Major League pitching. Last night’s victim was none other than three-time All-Star and Cy-Young award winner Cliff Lee. The lefty held the first-place Dodgers to only two runs on the night. Herrera’s line? A hit with two RBI.
“He’s a baseball guy, he has great instincts,” said Isotopes Hitting Coach John Valentin of Herrera’s smooth transition to the Majors. “It especially shows when you see him have success in the big leagues, when he’s facing the best of the best when it comes to pitching.”
The greatest part of his story is that Herrera came out of nowhere and was picked up for almost nothing. When he signed with the Dodgers in 2003, he was inked with only a $15,000 bonus. As a catcher.
“I’d like to tell you that I studied the minor league system and knew this guy could play, but I can’t say that,” Mattingly said. “It’s a testament to him that he continued to work hard.”
And finally, it’s all paying off.
“In the Dominican they say, ‘Give 100 percent. What happens happens,'” Herrera said. “Even if you don’t reach your goal, you could always tell your children, ‘I gave the most I could give.'”
Here in America, we say, “Welcome to ‘The Show,’ Elian. You’ve earned it.”