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100 greatest Detroit Tigers #35: Willie Hernandez

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The 1983 Detroit Tigers won 92 games and finished six games behind first place Baltimore. The team could not finish games and needed a relief ace to go to the next level. Manager Sparky Anderson watched Willie Hernandez pitch in the postseason for Philadelphia. Anderson convinced G.M. Bill Lajoie to make the trade and Hernandez provided the difference between first and second place in 1984. The relief ace pitched the final six seasons of his career in Detroit, made three All Star teams, won the 1984 MVP and Cy Young awards, and led the Tigers to the World Series championship.

Willie Hernandez entered the Major Leagues with the Chicago Cubs in 1977. Hernandez spent over six years in the Windy City, but never saved more than 10 games. In fact, his claim to fame was being part of the famous 23-22 loss to the Phillies in 1979. The lefthander surrendered eight runs, six earned, in 2.2 innings. Four years later, those same Phillies traded Dick Ruthven and Bill Johnson for Hernandez. The new Phillie performed well going 8-4 with a 3.29 ERA and 7 saves for Philadelphia. He was near perfect in the World Series against Baltimore. In three games, Hernandez tossed four innings and yielded only a walk.

Detroit's Sparky Anderson witnessed Hernandez's postseason performance and believed the lefty's screwball could provide the difference for the second place Tigers. The team traded popular outfielder Glenn Wilson and fan favorite John Wockenfuss to the Phillies for Hernandez and first baseman Dave Bergman. Bergman provided veteran leadership, a strong glove, and big hits for the franchise. Meanwhile, Hernandez locked down the late innings.

The 1984 Tigers began the season 35-5 en route to 104 victories and a wire-to-wire finish. The new closer was equally impressive. He went 9-3 with 32 saves, 1.92 ERA, 0.941 WHIP, and 112 strikeouts in 140.1 innings. The lefty led the league in games (80) and games finished (68). Hernandez did not blow a save until after Detroit clinched first place. The Tigers won the World Series and dominated the postseason with a 7-1 record. Hernandez appeared in six postseason games, saved three, and allowed two runs in 9.1 innings. Additionally, he made his first All Star team and won the American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Awards.

Thirty years later, some question Hernandez selection as MVP and Cy Young. At the time, few people quibbled with the decision. Dan Quisenberry (44 saves), Bert Blyleven (19 wins for a terrible team), and Mike Boddicker (20 wins) all enjoyed fine 1984 campaigns. However, Hernandez's season long perfection impressed pundits and fans alike. Nowadays, the 140.1 innings pitched stands out, but in 1984 it was 32 saves in 33 chances combined with the Tiger team improvement from 1983.

Hernandez remained at All Star form in 1985. The Tigers dipped to 84 wins, but Hernandez still saved 31 games. He went 8-10 with a 2.70 ERA and career best 0.900 WHIP. The reliever made his third and final All Star game in 1986. That season, the 31-year-old went 8-7 with 24 saves and 3.55 ERA.

It became apparent by 1987 that Hernandez had declined. At 32, he reached the age many players began to wind down. He lost the closer position to rookie Mike Henneman, but still proved a solid reliever at 3-4 with a 3.67 ERA and 8 saves. Detroit won the AL East in dramatic fashion, but lost to the Twins in the ALCS. Hernandez made one appearance, faced two batters, surrendered two hits, and no runs in 1/3 of an inning.

At times, fans treated Hernandez unfairly. They expected the 1984 version to walk out to the mound at all times. However, Hernandez was 29 in 1984 and 33 by 1988. The pitcher blamed the media for the fans and dumped a bucket of ice water over one self righteous reporter. Additionally, the lefty began calling himself Guillermo rather than Willie. He performed well that season with a 6-5 record, 3.06 ERA, 10 saves, and 1.197 WHIP. However, the end came in 1989. The Tigers lost over 100 games and Hernandez became the proverbial gas can. His 5.74 ERA and 1.660 WHIP demonstrated how quickly the end could come for an athlete. The Tigers released the former MVP in December. He made a couple of comeback attempts, but never pitched in the majors again.

Willie Hernandez pitched six seasons for the Tigers. During that time, he compiled a 36-31 record, 120 saves, and 2.98 ERA. In the postseason, he surrendered 2 runs in 9.2 innings and saved 3 games. The lefthander made three All Star teams, saved 20 or more games three times, 30 or more twice, and won the 1984 AL MVP and Cy Young Awards. Hernandez provided the difference for the Detroit Tigers. His 1984 perfection positioned the franchise for their fourth world title.

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