- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2000

He is a mystical figure, the Cuban pitcher referred to simply as "El Duque."

He is part fiction, part fact. The story was that he barely survived his escape from Cuba on some sort of makeshift lifeboat. Other stories have surfaced that made that tale seem pretty tall.

He claims to be 31 years old, but court documents filed last year in Cuba in connection with his divorce say he is 35.

Who knows what stories they will tell about El Duque 50 years from now? He was 9 feet tall. He struck out Fidel Castro to win his freedom from Cuba. He threw 120 miles per hour. He was 60 years old and still winning World Series games for the New York Yankees.

Here is what we know about Orlando Hernandez. He is undefeated in postseason play, with a 7-0 record and a 1.22 ERA. The Yankees have won every postseason game he has appeared in eight starts and one relief appearance. He is the starting pitcher for Game 6 of the American League Championship Series tonight at Yankee Stadium, with the Yankees holding a 3-2 lead in the best-of-7 series.

And we know one more thing: He has the Seattle Mariners' heart already.

Seattle manager Lou Piniella is already looking at El Duque as El Undefeated and is talking about trying to make life difficult for Hernandez not beat him. "Hernandez has never been beaten in the postseason," Piniella said. "We realize it. But we're going to stack up our lineup with left-handers and make it as tough as possible."

What a passionate motivational plea: Let's make it as tough as possible. What does that mean? Score more than one run off El Duque?

The Mariners don't seem to believe they can. "He's very tough," said designated hitter Edgar Martinez. "He can use his slider anytime, and his delivery is very tough on right-handers. We will need to create some runs."

Create some runs? This is baseball. You create art. You score runs. The Yankees aren't going to lose. You're going to have to beat them, and that means beating this pitcher of whom the Seattle hitters seem in awe. "He's very unpredictable," said John Olerud. "He's got three or four really good pitches that he can throw at any time. He's got good control and can throw them all for strikes. He can really mix it up however he wants to.

"It helps having seen him and having some at-bats against him. But just because he pitched you one way the last time doesn't necessarily mean he's going to pitch you the same way this time."

The Mariners are so confused that they can't figure out if it's a good thing or a bad thing to have faced El Duque before. And they can't figure out which is the best way to approach batting against him. In one sentence, Alex Rodriguez said of facing El Duque, "I think the way to attack him is to be aggressive."

Seconds later, Rodriguez said, "You have to be selective."

That's the battle plan: aggressive selectivity. I'm sure that's how the Mariners hitters will look tonight at the plate aggressively selective. In other words, clueless or delusional, if you believe Piniella. "All the pressure is on them," he said, referring to the Yankees.

Pressure? El Duque laughs at pressure. Well, maybe not laughs. But it doesn't bother him. "I always feel pressure," he said. "What I don't have is fear."

Seattle had their shot at El Duque and the Yankees in Game 2, when they had a 1-0 lead going into the eighth inning. A win would have put the Mariners up 2-0 in the series, going back to Seattle. You need that kind of edge against the Yankees to beat them. They had El Duque on the ropes and couldn't put him away. Usually, the fighter who wins the first time has an easier time in the rematch, although it would be difficult to imagine El Duque doing much better than he did the first time around.

A Seattle win tonight could change the whole landscape, though. This could be the deciding game.

If it comes down to a seventh game, as good as Andy Pettitte has been, it would be a huge blow to the Yankees for El Duque to lose. Manager Joe Torre is counting on it ending tonight. "I like our chances, basically because we have two of our best going," Torre said. "Hopefully, only one is enough."

One is usually enough, when it is El Undefeated.

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