Hairston’s HR gives Reds win in spring opener

Published 5:17 am Thursday, February 26, 2009

Carlos Hernandez faced major league hitters for the first time in three years Wednesday when he pitched the first two innings of the Tampa Bay Rays’ 7-0 loss to the visiting Cincinnati Reds at Charlotte Sports Park.

After moving their spring training headquarters downstate from St. Petersburg, the defending American League champions opened their new park in front of 6,028 fans, many of whom sat in traffic for hours as cars and trucks backed up for 2 miles along State Road 776, the only road that runs past the stadium.

Those caught in traffic missed Hernandez’s two hitless innings. The 28-year-old lefty struck out one and didn’t walk a batter.

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‘‘Feels good to be back,’’ said Hernandez, a non-roster invitee who last faced big league hitters during spring training in 2006. ‘‘I know it’s just the first game, but I’m looking forward to getting more outings and (doing) my job. Just be able to pitch, be able to throw strikes, be able to do my job, which is to get guys out, that’s the main thing.’’

Reds shortstop Jerry Hairston hit a grand slam off Randy Choate in the fifth inning, and Adam Rosales hit a two-run homer off Mitch Talbot in the ninth.

Once a rising star in the Houston organization, Hernandez has fought through a series of shoulder injuries. He missed most of the 2006 season and all of 2007 while recovering from surgery. The Rays signed him to a minor league contract last July, and Hernandez made six starts for Class-A Vero Beach. He was 2-1 with a 1.04 ERA.

Rays manager Joe Maddon, resting his starters until the second week of exhibition games because of the long postseason and short offseason, was eager to see Hernandez pitch Wednesday.

‘‘He’s very focused,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘And he’s got good stuff. This guy used to throw 91, 92, 93 (mph) with a good curveball, good changeup, and now he’s got this cutter. He’s very good holding on runners. So he’s kind of like the complete package. So we’ll see, see what he’s got going on. He came here to make the team, I know that.’’

Hernandez, who was 9-8 with a 4.54 ERA in 35 games (33 starts) for the Astros from 2001-04, could push his way into the competition for the fifth starter’s spot with Tampa Bay, joining rookie David Price, Talbot, Jeff Niemann and Jason Hammel.

‘‘Felt good first time out,’’ Hernandez said. ‘‘A lot of emotions went through my head in the first inning and even before the game started.’’