In five days, Livan Hernandez will take the ball on opening day at Nationals Park, an honor he knows well. The first time he did it, he was 23, a reigning World Series MVP, the toast of Miami. Now he is 36, a clubhouse sage, the wisest man in the room.
Hernandez has started opening day eight times, with four different franchises and five different teams. This year makes nine. There is one other active pitcher who will have started opening day nine times after Thursday, and that pitcher is Roy Halladay.
“This one is special,” Hernandez said. “I don’t know if it will be the last one. I’m very happy, very excited to be the opening day pitcher. Hopefully, it’s not going to be the last one.”
He knows, though, it probably will be. Stephen Strasburg, barring something unforeseen, is coming back next season for opening day. Hernandez joked he could win 20 games this year, and it probably would not make a difference. “Sometimes you play golf,” Hernandez said, “and birdie doesn’t win the hole.”
Today, in his last tune-up, Hernandez pitched four scoreless innings in a 10-0 Nationals win over the Astros. He allowed one hit and one walk but left after four innings with a stiff neck. He’s been feeling that for four or five days. Last night, pitching coach Steve McCatty explained, Hernandez tried to sleep on three pillows and his head got caught between them, resulting in discomfort. Or something.
Either way, Hernandez’s stiff neck shouldn’t be a factor on opening day. Hernandez wanted to pitch at least a fifth inning today. “He wanted to continue,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “We just didn’t see any point in it.”
So Hernandez will make his start, as scheduled, Thursday at Nationals Park. This doesn’t mean a whole lot, but just for fun: Hernandez is 4-3 with a 4.29 ERA on opening day.
Hernandez finished his spring with a 3.60 ERA in four starts, having allowed six earned runs in 15 innings on 17 hits, five walks and eight strikeouts. Hernandez looked sharp today, throwing his sinker for low strikes and using his slider effectively.
Next comes opening day, perhaps the last one for Hernandez.
“I’ve got a chance to win that day,” Hernandez said. “I’m really happy. All my friends are coming to the game. It’ll be very nice.”