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For Nationals, It's Starting to Take Shape

Hernandez Caps a Strong Series of Outings for Rotation

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 21, 2005; Page D01

VERO BEACH, Fla., March 20 -- The shot off the bat of Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder J.D. Drew came directly at Livan Hernandez, tearing through the perfect Florida afternoon. No need to fret. Hernandez calmly and instinctively stuck up his glove, knocked down the ball, picked it up and tossed it to first.

That was it, the final out in six shutout innings for Hernandez, the latest answer to what, when spring training began, appeared to be a string of serious questions about the Washington Nationals' starting rotation. But with two weeks to go before Opening Day, Hernandez and the other starters are healthy, happy and -- with two starts apiece remaining till the regular season -- nearly ready.

Nationals starting pitcher Livan Hernandez is on a roll with two outings left before the season. (Evan Vucci - AP)

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"That's been the biggest development, and the nicest development, so far here in spring training," Manager Frank Robinson said. "The arms, the pitchers that we had question marks behind coming into spring training have passed with flying colors -- so far."

Spring training isn't about statistics, but the numbers provide some evidence that the Nationals' rotation, though clearly not as overpowering at the front end as other teams' in the National League East, should be quite capable of competing. The five presumed starters -- Hernandez, Tony Armas Jr., Esteban Loaiza, Tomo Ohka and Zach Day -- have thrown 60 2/3 innings against major league clubs this spring, walking only nine with 25 strikeouts and a 2.97 ERA.

Hernandez's outing in the Nationals' 9-3 victory Sunday gives him 12 innings over his past two starts, in which he has allowed one run on eight hits with one walk and eight strikeouts. It came one day after Ohka threw five innings of three-hit, one-run ball. That came one day after Loaiza also allowed just one run over five innings. Even Day, who began the spring with two horrendous starts, settled down and allowed one run in five innings against Atlanta.

The starters are still on closely monitored pitch counts. The opposing lineups at this time of the spring are rarely stacked with major league hitters from top to bottom. And Robinson and pitching coach Randy St. Claire aren't yet sure what they'll see deep into games. But to this point, the starters are fulfilling their assignments without fail.

"The biggest thing with these guys right now is they're going the distance," catcher Brian Schneider said. "If [Robinson] and Randy want them to go six innings [and throw] 70 pitches, they're going the full six innings. That's a big plus. Sometimes in spring training, you've got pitchers going to the pitch count, but they're only three or four [innings] deep, and they're falling behind the hitters. Our guys, right now, are getting ahead of hitters and going really far into the games."

Even with the solid results, Hernandez, who will start the season opener on April 4 in Philadelphia, didn't feel sharp Sunday. He could tell while warming up in the bullpen that his curveball, which was spectacular in his last start, wasn't there. So he turned to his slider. "That's the thing about Livo," Schneider said. "That's what you want your pitchers to do in spring, hopefully. Maybe one day they may not have a pitch. It just makes them pitch."

To this point, the staff has shown it understands how to work through problems without getting lit up. Ohka, coming off a broken forearm last season, feels like his fastball is still a little high in the strike zone. Day, whose season ended with a broken finger, has worked to shorten his stride so he can get his sinker down. Armas, whose health was the major concern about the rotation before the opening of camp because of shoulder surgery in 2003, has said he feels comfortable, but needs to be sharper.

"They look like they're right on track to open up the season," St. Claire said. "They've been doing a great job. They're working ahead of hitters, making them put the ball in play, [allowing] few walks, which is key. . . . Coming in, we were a little skeptical on how Ohka was going to be, and Tony, and they both showed to me that they're fully recovered or close to being right where they should be, which is nice."

When Hernandez fielded the ball scorched by Drew, he returned to the dugout and bumped fists with several teammates. The ball stung his hand, but he was happy. "Nobody died today," he said, smiling.

"The rotation's very good," Hernandez said. "The starting pitchers, everybody's working hard every day. . . . You want to be ready for Opening Day. You want to be 100 percent. I think everybody's there."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company