SAN DIEGO — At one point Thursday night, Livan Hernandez was flat on his back on the mound at Petco Park, happy to still be alive. Chris Denorfia had crushed a line drive back at him in the third inning, directly at his face. He flashed his glove — brand new and not yet broken in — in front of his eyes. “I don’t know how it got it in the glove,” he said later. He stayed on the ground for a few moments, eyes closed. He removed his glove and shook his hand, which was still stinging.
“It was really, really scary,” Hernandez said. “I opened my eyes again, and I’m thinking, ‘I could be done.’ I got lucky on that one. That might have been the end of my career right there.”
Hernandez notched his eighth loss of the season, tied for the most in the majors, but that black mark says more about the team around him than his own performance.
The Nationals failed to score more than three runs for the sixth time in eight games. Hernandez exited with one out and two on in the sixth inning, and two relievers issued consecutive walks and then a single to score both runners. They made two outs on the bases. They have played well and lost at times this season, but Thursday was not one of those games.
“It was not a good game,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “The effort and the intensity was there. It just was not a good game. Just was not a pretty game. I don’t know how else to say it.”
The first mistake came at the very start. Rick Ankiel led off the game with a walk, then stole second. With Jayson Werth at the plate with one out, Ankiel tried to steal third, too, a decision he made on his own. Padres catcher Nick Hundley threw him out. And then Ankiel watched Werth hit a triple from the dugout.
“Bad time to run,” Ankiel said. “It was bad judgment on my call. Let’s leave it at that.”
Thursday, Hernandez was not at his best against the Padres, the worst offense in the National League. He allowed six earned runs on nine hits and a walk. The Nationals offense, as is its habit, could not help Hernandez, scoring three or fewer runs for the third straight game.
Hernandez lacked the sharpness from his recent starts from the outset. Denorfia led off the game with a sharp single, but Hernandez picked him off first base with a quick, spinning move. Jason Bartlett followed with a single to center. Hernandez ran the count full against Chase Headley and then left a sinker high in the strike zone, which Headley pummeled over the fence in right-center field. The first three batters had smacked hits, and the Nationals found themselves in an instant 2-0 deficit.
They also gave themselves an instant chance to erase it. They loaded the bases against Padres starter Aaron Harang with no outs, by way of a single by Michael Morse, a bunt base hit from Danny Espinosa and a walk by Ivan Rodriguez. Alex Cora drove in a run with a sacrifice fly, and a sacrifice bunt by Hernandez put runners on second and third for Ankiel. He flied to left, stranding a pair of runners in scoring position.
What become another rote loss for the Nationals served as a touchstone day for the Padres. Early Thursday, they summoned to the majors slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo, one of the most promising prospects in baseball. Hernandez welcomed him to the majors in the second inning, striking him looking at a sinker the started toward his front hip and darted back over the edge of the plate.
When Rizzo led off the fifth inning, he showed Hernandez why San Diego had clamored for his arrival. Rizzo blasted a 2-2 pitch halfway up the fence in right-center field. It caromed off the wall and skidded past Ankiel. Rizzo made it to third base, his first career hit a triple. He scored on a two-out infield single Denorfia dribbled to the right side.
The game unraveled once Hernandez left. The Padres scored three runs in the sixth after Sean Burnett loaded the bases by walking Rizzo, the only batter he faced. Cole Kimball also walked the first batter he faced, forcing in a run, and then he gave up a sacrifice fly.
“You can’t come out of the bullpen walking people,” Riggleman said. “It’s the major leagues. That’s not going to work.”
In the seventh, Henry Rodriguez entered and induced two quick outs. And then he lost the strike zone completely. He allowed three walks and a single to the next four hitters he faced, mixing in a run-scoring wild pitch.
“With Henry, we know we’re going to get that,” Riggleman said. “That just comes as part of his development as a major league pitcher.”
The only solace came across the country, back east, where Ryan Zimmerman appeared in his latest minor league rehab game. Zimmerman played a full nine innings for the first time since undergoing surgery in early May to repair a torn abdominal muscle. He went 2 for 4 with a double for high-Class A Potomac. Zimmerman is scheduled to be off Friday. He could join the team in San Diego, depending on how he feels after playing the full game, but most likely he will return Tuesday when the Nationals come home.
Surely, they need their best player’s bat in the lineup. The Nationals scratched together a few opportunities to score Thursday, but their lineup has not been deep enough without Zimmerman to consistently cash in on them. The Nationals went 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position Thursday and left 12 men on base.
The loss dropped the Nationals’ record on their Western trip to 3-5, so they will have to win their next three games against the Padres to come home with a winning record.
“We lose a lot of good games we’re supposed to win,” Hernandez said. “We feel it. We’re human. We don’t feel too good about the games we’ve lost. It’s hard. But we got to continue to play. We don’t get hot. The time’s going to come. We don’t know when.”