ATLANTA - There's nothing wrong with Roberto Hernandez's fastball. It still registers 96 mph on the radar gun. It's the location of his pitches that's troubling him.
The 38-year-old reliever has given up seven earned runs in his past five innings and the fault lies in his command. He is trying to get ahead with his fastball and put hitters away with his split-finger, but hitters have been jumping on his heater, which he is leaving over the middle of the plate.
"For me, the split is a put-away pitch," the former USC Aiken pitchersaid. "I'm rarely going to start a hitter out with a split. But I'm falling behind hitters and when you fall behind, they're going to let you know."
Hernandez allowed a grand slam to Cincinnati pinch hitter Adam Dunn in the 11th inning of Monday's 7-6 loss. After pounding Dunn away with fastballs during two at-bats in last week's visit to Cincinnati, the right-hander tried to go in on the Reds' strongman with a fastball, but the pitch caught too much of the plate.
"Dunn jumped out at the first pitch, lunged at it, so (catcher) Javy (Lopez) and I thought we'd go in on him," Hernandez said. "He's a strong kid. Give him some credit. I checked the video afterward because I thought the ball was right down the middle, but it wasn't. I needed to get it about three more inches inside."
After years of closing games, Hernandez said he won't be rattled by several ineffective outings.
"I've had enough days like this in my career," he said. "A reliever has to have amnesia. Eleven years of going through it is not going to faze me."
MAKING PROGRESS: Paul Byrd threw from a mound Wednesday for the first time since April surgery on his right elbow to remove bone chips. He threw 35 pitches with no discomfort and is targeting a week or two before the All-Star break for his return.
"I was real pleased that I threw a slider and it did what it was supposed to," said Byrd, who has been on the disabled list since March 21. "I was excited, and there was no pain."
Byrd, who said he threw between 60 to 70 percent velocity, plans to throw again this weekend in New York. He hopes to pitch in a simulated game in a week or two.
GILES UPDATE: After leaving Tuesday night's game when he was struck on his left arm by Reds starter Jimmy Haynes' fastball, second baseman Marcus Giles wasn't in Wednesday's lineup and hopes to be back Friday when the Braves open a brief trip in New York.
Giles, who has been hit four times in the past two weeks, plans to wear a hard plastic elbow guard when he returns.
"I can't be thinking about getting out of the way," he said. "You can't be scared when you're in the box or you'll have no chance."
Giles, who is batting .326, is being pounded inside by pitchers who have adjusted to him driving pitches on the outer half of the plate to right field.
"I'll be fine," he said. "I'll wear some protection and learn how to hit the inside pitch. It's no secret that's my weak point. I need to make the adjustment, not the pitchers. That's what I plan to do."
AROUND THE DIAMOND: For the fourth time since 1993, the Braves will enter Tuesday's annual amateur draft without a first-round pick. The team's first pick, No. 30 overall, belongs to Kansas City, compensation for signing Byrd as a free agent last winter. The Braves have two sandwich picks between the first and second rounds, Nos. 35 and 36 overall, which they received from the Mets and Cubs for the losses of pitchers Tom Glavine and Mike Remlinger. "We were going to pick 30th, and now we pick 35th," director of scouting Roy Clark said. "I feel with the depth in this draft, we're going to get some good players." ... Today marks the one-year anniversary of John Smoltz's last loss, which came against the Expos. Since June 3, he has converted 60 of 62 save opportunities. ... Despite Tuesday night's 10th-inning walk-off home run, Chipper Jones is not ready to declare his slump over. "Let's wait a little while and see if I go on a little kind of streak," he said. "My first four at-bats (Tuesday) were pretty brutal. I'm thinking too much, trying to out-think the pitcher and I'm getting outguessed, or I go up looking for a pitch and swing at something else and get myself out." Jones entered Wednesday night's game with 14 hits in his past 55 at-bats (.255).
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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