Orlando Hernández a few months ago was facing death by defecting from Cuba in a small leaking boat. Now he pitches in Yankee Stadium under a $6 million contract.

MONTREAL -- When the Yankees signed Orlando Hernández in March, they knew he was brave enough to board a leaky boat. They knew he had the determination to defect from Cuba. They knew he possessed a strange delivery that often changed from one pitch to the next.

Orlando Hernandez
Orlando Hernandez allowed four hits in his second major league start.

Hernández struck out nine and walked one; among the last 24 batters he faced, he went to one three-ball count. He maintained a shutout until Montreal put together a double and single with one out in the ninth inning.

The debate over Hernández's future is over, for now and the foreseeable future. El Duque, as Hernández is known, is staying. The Yankees could not possibly return him to the minor leagues, considering his performance in winning his first two starts.

Joe Girardi, Hernández's catcher tonight, compared him to Cone, who compared him to Luis Tiant, a Cuban right-hander who won 229 games in the major leagues. Hernández reminded Torre of Juan Marichal, with the different arm angles, different release points, different speeds.

"He was excellent," said Girardi, who, like Torre, looked stunned by Hernández's dominance.

Catching Hernández for the first time was a challenge, Girardi said. His pitches moved so much, particularly his fastball. Girardi set up his target on the absolute edges of the strike zone and, through Spanish-speaking teammate Jorge Posada, asked Hernández in the middle innings if that was O.K.

Oh, yes, El Duque replied, and kept throwing to those edges. Nothing in the middle of the plate, Girardi said. Nothing.

"His command is what's so impressive," Girardi said.

Hernández said afterward that he just wanted to help the team. With three walks and 16 strikeouts in his first 16 innings, he fits right in. The Yankees are 45-13. They have won 44 of their last 53 games, only the second team in American League history to go on such a streak of success. The 1941 Yankees also won 44 of 53.

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