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Rays backup catcher is still smiling after Thursday’s big game

ST. PETERSBURG

In the back corner of the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse, far from the bright lights that find Evan Longoria, is a row of lockers reserved for relief pitchers and unassuming backup catchers. That’s where you will find Michel Hernandez, a well-traveled farm hand who, until this season, played in just 10 major league games and didn’t drive in a run.

Not one single run.

Until Thursday, when Hernandez slugged his first home run and ripped his first double and drove in three runs against the Boston Red Sox.

“A great story,” said J.P. Howell, the Rays reliever who dresses a few lockers to the right.

Hernandez has played for seven organizations. He even spent time in an Independent League in 2007 until the Rays signed him and sent him to Triple-A Durham.

The Rays released Hernandez after the season, and he went to spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2008. He didn’t make the team and was sent to Triple-A. Hernandez was traded to the Rays on the last day in August.

An injury to Shawn Riggans opened a spot on the roster for Hernandez, and the career minor leaguer was headed to the World Series.

Another injury to Riggans last month opened a locker in the Rays clubhouse for Hernandez.

“He’s a great backup kind of catcher,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

Works hard. Always ready to play.

Wears a smile every day.

Hernandez is 30. He enjoys playing baseball. He enjoys his new life in America.

He was born in Havana, Cuba, and slipped away from the national team in 1998 during a tournament in Mexico. He was 18.

His wife, Marta, was waiting for him in Venezuela.

They have a son, Michael, who is 5.

Michael has Type 1 diabetes.

The Hernandez family lives in Lutz. Marta cried when her husband was promoted from Triple-A last month.

That meant he would be home more and could help with Michael.

You wouldn’t know Hernandez was with the Rays unless you wandered over to that corner of the clubhouse.

That corner was popular Friday.

“Who’s talking, Babe Ruth?” relief pitcher Joe Nelson asked as he passed by.

“How many radio shows has this guy done today?” Maddon asked as he strolled by.

Hernandez laughed. A day after his big game he was still excited.

“I tried to sleep,” he said. “I couldn’t. I watched the game.”

He watched himself catch six innings of perfect baseball.

He watched himself take Josh Beckett deep in the fourth inning. Hernandez didn’t know what to do. He doesn’t have a home run trot.

“I wanted to smile,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t.”

He singled in a run in the fifth and doubled home another run in the eighth.

“That guy, I’ll tell you what, if he played more ... ,” Howell said, not finishing the sentence, but you get the idea.

Hernandez won’t, though. He’s a backup catcher.

A great kind of backup, Maddon said. And one who had a great night.

Matt Garza flirted with perfection, and the Rays hung 13 runs on their biggest rival. And the guys were buzzing about the backup catcher.

“I’m so happy for that guy because he works his butt off,” Garza said.

Hernandez went home after the Rays’ win. His wife and little boy were asleep. Marta recorded the game.

Hernandez sat in the quiet of his Lutz home and watched himself hit a big league home run three times.

Rewind, play. Rewind, play. Rewind, play.

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