Orlando Hernandez knows real pressure. One thing's for sure: Pitching a baseball game Saturday night at Jacobs Field didn't faze him.
To the right-hander they call "El Duque," pressure is drifting aimlessly on a raft, risking your life trying to defect from Cuba as he did last Christmas. It's not about potentially saving the season for a team with the best record of any squad assembled in the sport's last 92 years.
Pressure is getting banned from the game you love because your government expects you to bolt for the promised land of America. It's not about staring down Cleveland batters in front of a hostile crowd of 44,981.
Hernandez was masterful when the Yankees needed him most, pitching seven shutout innings as New York blanked Cleveland, 4-0, to even the American League Championship Series at two wins apiece.
The pivotal fifth game of the series is this afternoon at 4 (Ch. 2, Radio 1520). David Wells, the winner in the Yankees' 7-2 Game One victory, will pitch for New York against Cleveland's Chad Ogea. The series then returns to Yankee Stadium for Game Six on Tuesday night.
Only Omar Vizquel, who was 3 for 4, was able to solve Hernandez and relievers Mike Stanton and Mariano Rivera. The rest of the Cleveland lineup combined to go 1 for 26.
"He's got such presence," Yankee teammate David Cone marveled about Hernandez, just the seventh rookie starter to win an ALCS game. "He thinks like an ace. He pitched like an ace."
"With everything he's been through, a playoff game is just like a walk in the park," added Yankees manager Joe Torre. "Except that it was big for us."
Hernandez, who signed a $6.6 million contract with the Yankees March 7, went 12-4 after joining the team from Triple-A Columbus June 3. None of those wins, however, had nearly the significance of this one.
"You could tell from pitch one that day he knew how to pitch," recalled Paul O'Neill, whose first-inning home run off Cleveland starter Dwight Gooden gave Hernandez the only run he'd need. "We're playing for our lives tonight and he comes out . . . and nothing affects him."
Hernandez struck out six and walked two, often fooling Cleveland hitters with the velocity on his fastball or nasty offspeed pitches.
"I had no fear," Hernandez said through an interpreter. "I've been through many difficult times in my life on the field and off of the field and I knew that I would be able to handle it."
At this time last October, Hernandez was trying to find a way -- any way -- to tune in the Florida Marlins' games on their run to a World Series title. His half-brother, Livan Hernandez, was on his way to Series MVP honors, but El Duque had few avenues to learn what was going on in Miami and Cleveland.
He got crackled radio reception of some games and CNN's Havana Bureau showed him some video. Other than that, his connection to the postseason was a distant one. A year later, he has thrust himself into the middle of the action.
"The few Cubans who play here represent our whole country," he said. "That is very big and very important to me."
For the second straight night, New York had just four hits. The Yankees are batting a measly .194 in the series but Hernandez made sure they were able to pull even, though he hadn't pitched in 15 days.
"He was very good. I don't know that he missed any spots all night long," said Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove.
Hernandez encountered the most trouble in the first and sixth and retired Jim Thome both times to end the inning with two runners on.
With two on in the first, Thome took a 3-2 pitch deep to right field and the crowd roared with the expectation of a three-run homer. The ball died just in front of the fence, allowing O'Neill to haul it in. In the sixth, Thome struck out on a breaking pitch.
Gooden lasted 4 2/3 innings, giving up O'Neill's first-inning home run to right and two runs in the fifth after walking the first two batters. He has made nine career postseason starts without a victory -- the most starts ever by a winless pitcher in the October spotlight.
Gooden walked O'Neill and Bernie Williams to open the fourth. Chili Davis' ground-rule double to left scored O'Neill to gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead, and Williams scored on Tino Martinez's sacrifice fly to center. That run was disputed as Kenny Lofton dropped the ball trying to transfer it to his throwing hand and Martinez was ruled safe at first.Martinez was still given credit for the RBI, his first of the postseason. His ninth-inning double snapped an 0-for-15 drought in the series. Homer Bush pinch-ran for him and scored New York's final run on Scott Brosius' sacrifice fly off reliever Paul Shuey.