Washington Nationals vs. Houston Astros: A pitching matchup emblematic of the Nats’ past and future

— Livan Hernandez wanted to pitch for the Washington Nationals this season, but he understood and accepted the cold truth of the matter. “They don’t need me anymore over there,” Hernandez said Saturday afternoon, shrugging in the Houston Astros clubhouse.

The Nationals opened their spring training schedule with a pitching matchup perfectly symbolic of where they have been and where they plan to go. Hernandez, a stalwart of their rotation for the past two seasons, had been cast aside for younger, better pitchers such as Edwin Jackson. Saturday afternoon, in a game the Astros won, 3-1, they just so happened to face one another.

In his first Nationals start, Jackson walked two batters and allowed one hit, addled by overexcitement and his effort to alter mechanics. Hernandez twirled a looping, first-pitch curveball to Nationals phenom Bryce Harper, who was 5 years old when Hernandez won the 1997 World Series MVP.

A few pitches later, Harper laced a grounder to right for his first hit.

Both Jackson and Hernandez threw two scoreless innings in their first spring tune-ups, both oblivious to what their meeting represented.

At the end of last year, Hernandez met with Nationals Manager Davey Johnson. Hernandez listened as Johnson told him the Nationals would like to bring him back, perhaps as part-time reliever and a full-time mentor. Inside, though, Hernandez knew his tenure in Washington, which included the first pitch after baseball returned, had ended.

The Nationals once relied on Hernandez’s rubbery right arm for consistent innings. They have higher aims now, having traded competence for what they hope will be contention. They traded for Gio Gonzalez, welcomed back Stephen Strasburg, signed Jackson for $11 million and let Hernandez know his best opportunity would come elsewhere.

“I prepared for that,” Hernandez, 37, said. “I go home and told my girlfriend: ‘I don’t think I have a chance to come back to Washington next year.’ But I know that. Everybody, a couple people said: ‘I want you back.’ But inside, I say, ‘Yeah, right. It’s not gonna happen.’ ”

Having navigated the business of major league baseball for almost two decades, Hernandez harbored no ill feelings toward the Nationals. “We’re good,” Hernandez said. “I’m good with Johnson, and Mike Rizzo is a great guy.”

Hernandez said he would still like to work for the Nationals after his career. When that will come, he’s not sure.

“Let’s see if I can go for three more [years], maybe more, I don’t know,” Hernandez said. “I want to be the Jamie Moyer of right-handers.”

Saturday, as chance would have it, he faced his old team in the spring’s first game. “No matter what happens on the field,” Hernandez said, “we’re still friends.”

Michael Morse had sent Hernandez a text message Friday night that read, “I’m coming! You better be ready!”

The Nationals did not send Morse on the road trip, but Jackson, one of the pitchers who made Hernandez expendable, drew the start. Jackson had chosen the Nationals’ one-year, $11 million offer in February, in part, because he believed they could help him correct a mechanical flaw and hide the ball from hitters better in his delivery.

Jackson, who ended his 2011 season by walking seven batters in a World Series game, began his Nationals’ tenure by walking Houston leadoff hitter J.B. Shuck on five pitches. Jackson needed to work on the timing of certain parts of his new delivery — when to take the ball out of his glove, when to swing his arm up. He also faced the jitters that come with any first start. “It’s just getting timing down,” Jackson said.

Jackson walked a batter in the second inning, and overall he threw 12 strikes in 28 pitches. From the wind-up, the motion he wants to change, Jackson faced three batters and walked two.

Pitching coach Steve McCatty has tried to limit Jackson’s focus on his mechanics. He fears Jackson could become bogged down by the change as he prepares for the season, losing his natural ability.

“When I talk to him, we don’t talk mechanics,” McCatty said.

McCatty and Jackson will keep working together, and Hernandez will find his way with the Astros, the team with the worst record in the majors last year. His old team will move on and up without him. For one day, the Nationals and Hernandez crossed paths again.

“It was really weird,” Johnson said. “I love the guy for a lot of reasons, just because he’s an athlete and a heck of a pitcher. He’s been a great influence on this ball club. Toward the end of the season, he sacrificed his starts for some of these young guys. He’s just a special person.”

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