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Kiké Hernández starting to spark Red Sox after miserable start

It’s only a six-game hitting streak, but for Kiké Hernández, it’s the little things these days.

Hernández hasn’t been alone among his teammates in his offensive struggles to start the year, but if the past week is any indication, the leadoff man might be starting to turn his season around.

Hernández went 1-for-4 on Wednesday with an RBI single in the fourth as the Red Sox picked up a 5-1 victory over the Houston Astros, winning their second series in a row. The Astros had arrived in Boston on Monday winning 12 of their previous 13 games.

The big story of the night, of course, was Nick Pivetta’s fantastic complete-game two-hitter, in which he walked none, struck out eight and induced 19 swings and misses.

But if the Red Sox are going to make any dent in their win-loss record, they’ll need a more consistent offensive approach and getting Hernández back on track at the top of the order could be key to that. Perhaps it’s no coincidence the Red Sox have won four of their last six games with Hernández hitting just a bit better.

The center fielder owns an awful .182 average thus far on the season with a .530 OPS in 34 games, but his past week at the plate has been his most productive week of the season. After the RBI single on Wednesday, Hernández has gone 7-for-24 (.292) with two doubles, four runs batted in and four runs scored in his last six games since the series last weekend in Texas. He didn’t strike out once in 13 at-bats against the Astros this week.

Hernández is no stranger to rough starts. The early part of last season wasn’t quite as awful, as he hit .228 with a .667 OPS through the first 43 games. But after manager Alex Cora sat him in back-to-back games in Atlanta in early June, Hernández took off, hitting .260 with an .839 OPS over the remaining 91 games. He brought it to another level in the postseason where he hit .408 with a 1.260 OPS and five homers in 11 games.

But both Hernández and Cora think last year’s early-season struggles don’t compare to this year.

“This is different because the pitches in the zone, he’s not doing damage with it,” Cora said. “I think last year, although he went through his stretch and all that, it felt like he was hitting the ball hard, harder than this year, and now there are a lot of pop-ups in the infield. It’s about his path, it seems like he’s getting under a lot. When he gets his pitches, I don’t want to think for him or feel for him, but he looks like he’s trying to do too much, 2-0, 3-1.”

Even still, Hernández is trying to take lessons from his slow start last year.

“I kind of took it as the season starts today,” Hernadez said of the two-day benching last June that sparked his season. “I took that mentality and I did some mechanical adjustments and approach-wise got a little closer to the plate and the batter’s box and all that translated into production. This year, I’m trying not to change my swing every single day like I did at the beginning of last year. I’m just trying to trust it out and literally, not even try to search for hits, just put up good at-bats. I know if I find a way to get on base more chances than not I’m going to score.”

Cora started the year hitting Hernández in the leadoff spot, but slid him down in the order and tried Trevor Story at leadoff for about two weeks in late April and early May to spark the offense. Hernández went hitless for the first three games back in the top spot before stringing together his six-game hitting streak.

There’s still plenty of work to do, though. Hernández popped up in his first at-bat of the night on the second pitch of the game. But in his second at-bat, he started off 3-0 before working the count full, then hitting a grounder to short. He hustled down the line and reached on an errant throw. Rafael Devers lofted a high double off the wall in the next at-bat and Hernández motored all the way from first to score. The next inning he hit his single to left field. In his final at-bat, he popped out to short.

But two things were important about that RBI single: It came off the bat at 101.6 mph (the seventh hardest-hit ball of the night from either side) and it was off a 92 mph fastball from Houston starter Luis Garcia.

To this point, Hernández has been making a lot of weak contact and has also struggled hitting fastballs. In 2021, his hard-hit rate was 43 percent while this year it has dipped to 26 percent. His career hard-hit rate is 38 percent. Meanwhile, he hasn’t been able to catch up to fastballs. Last year, Hernández was hitting .282 with a weighted on-base average of .375 off fastballs. This year, he’s hitting .181 with a .242 wOBA.

“You talk to him and just the rhythm, his hands, he doesn’t feel it,” Cora said. “He’s been doing a better job being more direct to the ball. Still hitting the ball in the air. It’s part of his game but at the same time, when he hits line drives, that’s when he’s at his best. He hit a line drive (Tuesday) to right field. If you look at his videos this year, his hits, most of them have been to right-center, right field, so that’s what we’re trying to accomplish. We know he’s going to do damage at one point, but I think it starts with the little battles and if he starts shooting the ball the other way, he’s going to be OK.”

(Photo: Billie Weiss / Boston Red Sox / Getty Images)

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