Two friends from Triple-A Fresno bonded together for an unforgettable night!

Yadiel Hernandez hit the walk-off home run on an inside cutter: Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats

We already wrote about how Luis Garcia’s family friend could not watch his MLB debut because the Hilton Hotel across from Camden Yards was closed due to COVID, and there was no perch to watch the game short of breaking into a building which this person did not do. This has been a plight on families for the most part to watch their loved ones in their debuts — a long tradition snuffed out by COVID with all stadiums being closed to spectators.

But Leslie Espino got creative and went to the roof of the Hampton Inn hotel across the street from Nationals Park and was able to secure spots on the rooftop as the the only way to watch her husband, Paolo Espino, make his Washington Nationals debut. Leslie took Lisandra Hernandez, who is the wife of the 32-year-old rookie Yadiel Hernandez, with her as well as our photographer, Sol Tucker, to cover this story.

Who knew the game would end in such a historic way with Hernandez as the hero. Of course it was Hernandez who hit the dramatic walk-off home run to win the game. The first homer of his career.

Lisandra Hernandez holding up her husband’s jersey; Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats

If you saw Yadiel Hernandez look up from the batter’s box to the rooftop of the Hampton Inn, he was looking at his wife on the rooftop as she was waving his jersey. Leslie Espino did not have a jersey of her husband to wave so she was cheering him on as he struck-out four Phillies’ batters which included Alec Bohm, J.T. Realmuto, Andrew Knapp and Roman Quinn. Not exactly an easy quartet to strikeout. In addition, Espino did not allow Bryce Harper to get a hit off of him.

Both Espino and Hernandez have much in common as they are both close in age, Espino is 33, and Hernandez will be 33 in 2 weeks, and they became quick friends last year at Triple-A Fresno.

Both have persevered in long minor league careers. Espino grew up as a Mariano Rivera fan since he is from Panama. His road to the Majors was far easier than Hernandez who had to defect from his native Cuba. Hernandez was an Albert Pujols fan.

“Johnny DiPuglia and I had seen him in some international competitions for years, and was always a guy who intrigued us with his tool package,” general manager Mike Rizzo said of Hernandez in a 106.7 Radio interview this morning. “He could always hit. He’s a credit to perseverance and sticking to your dream, and couldn’t be happier for him. It really was a great accomplishment for him.”

Of course assistant general manager Johnny DiPuglia was a key to getting Hernandez who was a risky signing due to his age. With four years in the minors, it pushed him to 32 years old which is normally years too late for minor leaguers and most are retired by then to make an MLB debut. He stuck to it, and it paid off as a life’s achievement.

“Great story!! Proud of him and very happy for him and his family,” DiPuglia told me.

If you didn’t feel emotion when that home run went over the fence, you must not have grasped what that meant to a player who waited his whole life to make an impact as a baseball player. The next closest thing for Hernandez was a game winning home run he hit for his Cuban team a long time ago.

“I know you can hit,” manager Dave Martinez told Hernandez over the weekend. “I know you can swing the bat. I know you can play. Don’t worry about it. You’re going to get another opportunity, I’m sure. Just hang in there. You never know what happens, even in the next few days. Just stay ready.”

“Awesome. What can I say? Big home run right there. First one of his career. Outstanding. It was a good pick me-up, I mean, it really was for our club. I know he can hit, I’ve seen him hit, so it’s good to see him get a couple hits and hit that big home run for us.”

Hernandez’s first stint after his MLB debut on September 10th was nothing great as he went hitless (0-7), and he was optioned back to the minor league camp in Fredericksburg. But with injuries this week, he was called back up and made some history.

“I kept reflecting and telling myself, ‘The season’s about to end. I’m 0-for-7 hitting. I don’t even have a hit in the big leagues.’ I kept thinking about the fact the season’s about to end so there’s a possibility I don’t get another opportunity, and I don’t even have a base hit to show for it,” Hernandez said through Octavio Martinez interpreting for him into English from Spanish.

He had a big RBI earlier in this game and nothing bigger than this walk-off that he pulled deep down the line on a cutter for the first Nats come-from-behind win after the seventh inning this season. For the game, Hernandez had two hits, and three RBIs with each RBI having great significance in the game. Hernandez went oppo double in the fourth inning off of JoJo Romero, and that was almost a home run which plated Yadiel’s first career RBI. The walk-off home run was on a 90 mph cutter off of Brandon Workman who the Phillies acquired in a deadline trade from the Red Sox.

“I was paying attention to the at-bat beforehand, with Thames hitting,” Hernandez said. “And I noticed it seemed like [Workman] was throwing a cutter. So when I was hitting, I was kind of expecting that a little bit. He threw a four-seam fastball, and then he cut one on me, threw another straight fastball. So in my head, I was thinking he’s probably going to throw the cutter here. And I sat on it, and I hit the cutter.”

“I was extremely happy. In reality, it never crossed my mind that I was going to end the game that way. I’ve always thought I was going to hit a home run at some point, because that’s part of my game. … I just didn’t foresee it happening in that moment.”

Being that intuitive, Hernandez put himself in a great spot to succeed and he guessed right that the inside cutter was coming. He set a record as the oldest player in Major League history to hit a walk-off home run as his first career home run according to STATS Perform.

“This is a dream come true for [Yadiel],” Espino said.

Espino was a Triple-A Fresno teammate with Hernandez and their wives had become friends. He cheered his friend and teammate on after the walk-off. They were part of the “Los Viejos” still in Triple-A for the Nats last year as they watched their MLB teammates win the World Series.

“We like to reward guys for good minor league seasons,” Rizzo said. “This was certainly a guy who earned his way to the big leagues.”

Espino had not pitched in the Majors in over 3 years when he made his debut. His MLB stay was short in 2017 for the Rangers and Brewers. Last night he showed that he still has something to contribute.

“After ‘17, I got sent down and I’ve been fighting again,” Espino said. “It’s definitely tough. It’s been such a long journey. But I’m happy. I don’t regret anything. I’ve been blessed to be staying around, fighting. I have a lot of people behind me supporting me. And I’m so happy that all the teams I’ve been around, and the Nationals especially, for the opportunity they have given me.”

The odds were so long for both of these players to be called up. But to get a walk-off for your first career home run? Those odds have to be astronomical. Hernandez as we reported on his debut became the oldest rookie in Nats history surpassing Rick Short who was 32 years and 186 days old at his debut in 2005. Short had two career home runs in blowout games, and he can always brag that he homered off of Hall-of-Famer John Smoltz and former Rookie of the Year Dontrelle Willis. When playing days are over and you reminisce, there will hopefully be some of those high points. Hernandez’s 0-7 to start his career becomes a footnote on a story few will believe.

The next 32-year-old who thinks about giving up can think of Short, Hernandez and Espino. The odds are long — but it is possible. One word in common that both Rizzo and Espino chose was “dream” and in dreams anything is possible.

Both players have a lot to be thankful for including their supportive families. Their career stories have not been fully written. Perseverance and hard work and some baseball smarts got them to this point, they have to continue on that same path into the future.

Paolo Espino‘s wife (left) and Yadiel Hernandez’s wife (right) got to watch their husbands; Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats
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