When Stephen Strasburg opened the Nationals’ season by throwing near 100-mph fastballs at the Chicago Cubs, it was almost easy to forget the slovenly right-hander who opened the Nationals’ 2011 season by breaking his curveball in at 61 mph. But Livan Hernandez has a place in Washington baseball history that cannot be taken away. He threw the first pitch in Nationals’ history, the first pitch in Washington in 34 years, and served as the Opening Day starter in 2005, 2006 and 2011.
So there are few better to reflect on what the Nationals’ playoff-clinching win Thursday night against the Dodgers means to Washington. Hernandez arrived Friday as a reliever with the Milwaukee Brewers, but he clearly feels as much a part of the franchise in the home clubhouse.
“It’s something that’s very, very nice,” Hernandez said Friday afternoon. “You’ve got to give all the credit to [general manager] Mike Rizzo for putting the team together with a lot of chemistry. That was more important. You can have a good team, but without a lot of chemistry, it’s not going to work. …
“People don’t know how hard it is to put a team together to make the playoffs. Playoffs is something you dream of. You go to spring training, it [is] never going to be a good year when you don’t make the playoffs. … It’s happened. I’m happy for a lot of people there. They’re all my friends on that team. It’s a dream come true for a lot of people. For the city, it’s very nice. It’s a city that loves baseball.”
Hernandez made the all-star team for the Nationals in 2005, when he went 15-10 and led the National League with 246 1/3 innings pitched. He was traded to Arizona (for right-hander Garrett Mock and left-hander Matt Chico) in August 2006, but he always professed his love for Washington as a baseball town. He returned to the Nationals for the 2009, ’10 and ’11 seasons before latching on with Atlanta and, after he was released, Milwaukee this season.
“It’s a great organization,” Hernandez said of the Nationals. “It’s a great city to live in. For the family, it’s a great city. You feel safe all the time. But more important is the way they treat you here. The owner’s a great person. The family is unbelievable. And all the coaches, it’s nice. The office people — everybody’s nice. That was something that was very good, and I feel good. I feel good. I feel like I’m at home.”
Because he was on the most recent Nationals team, Hernandez worked some with some of the younger pitchers, particularly lefty Ross Detwiler, who won his 10th game in the clincher against the Dodgers. Unsolicited, though, he brought up his opinion on the shutdown of Strasburg, the most controversial topic in baseball this season. The answer, for someone who has pitched more than 200 innings in 10 different seasons, is somewhat surprising.
“I feel bad for Strasburg,” Hernandez said. “But … he’s a franchise player, too, same like Jordan [Zimmermann]. And I think you got to take care of what you’ve got. You don’t want to push the guy too much. I understand Mike Rizzo, and if I’m Mike Rizzo right now, I’d do it the same way. And Strasburg, he got to understand that he’s got to take care of himself.
“There’s more playoffs to come, I think. This city, I think, is going to be in the World Series, if not this year, next year or really soon, and win the World Series title. … You don’t want to blow his arm again.”
Repeatedly, Hernandez went out of his way to praise the Nationals as an organization, including the Lerner family and Mark Lerner, the son of principle owner Theodore N. Lerner.
“I know the owner is the No. 1 fan,” Hernandez said, referring to Mark Lerner, who is more visible at the park than his father. “You see the owner catching fly balls in center field, because he loves baseball, it’s something that you never see on a lot of teams. I think on any team.”