Hernandez Pitches, Slugs Nats to Victory

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 30, 2005

There is only one starting pitcher on the Washington Nationals' staff, and perhaps only a handful in Frank Robinson's managing career, who could have talked Robinson out of the decision he had made at the end of the seventh inning last night. Livan Hernandez was coming out of the game, Robinson had decided, until Hernandez looked him in the eye and told him he wanted one more inning. In Washington, it's called veto power, and on the Nationals, only Hernandez has it.

Robinson looked at Hernandez long and hard, and relented. Hernandez went back out for the eighth, and his 130th and final pitch was a screaming fastball that Mets right fielder Victor Diaz could only wave at feebly. One dicey inning later, the Nationals had a 5-1 victory that had been constructed largely around Hernandez's right arm and partially around his bat, as a crowd of 30,627 looked on at RFK Stadium.

"I know him," Robinson said of Hernandez, acknowledging the Cuban right-hander is the only pitcher on his staff capable of changing his mind. "He tells me he has another inning in him, I believe him. He tells the truth. [But] it took a lot of convincing."

The first month of the season will end for the Nationals tonight, and there is no surer sign of the franchise's progress than this: A year ago, the team (which was known then as the Montreal Expos) finished April with a 5-20 record. Last night's win, on the other hand, ensures the Nationals (12-11) of at least a .500 opening month.

This was the Hernandez (3-2) the Nationals have come to expect and cherish: He pumped strikes and pumped fists, gobbled up innings and wore his emotions on his thermal undershirt sleeves, which kept him insulated against a chilly wind. He alternated between borderline-brilliant and barely effective, but it was a formula that worked. The eight-inning outing was his finest since he carried a one-hitter into the ninth inning on RFK's Opening Night a little more than two weeks ago.

Before last night's game, Hernandez had joked to injured teammate Wil Cordero that he might just go deep -- and sure enough, in the fifth he drilled a critical homer that gave the Nationals a two-run lead, one of three homers the Nationals hit against Mets starter Jae Weong Seo in the middle innings.

The Nationals have learned the hard way that the so-called "power" alleys at RFK are where long fly balls go to die, having witnessed many a should-have-been homer turn into a double if you are lucky, an out if you are not.

The odds are better in the corners, where the foul poles reside a mere 335 feet from home plate -- and that's where the Nationals took aim in the middle innings against Seo (1-1). Jose Guillen's homer to left, Brian Schneider's to right and Hernandez's to left all were pull-jobs within 30 feet of the foul poles.

"The ball carries here to the corners," Hernandez said. "But you hit it to center field, forget it."

Guillen's solo shot in the fourth -- which came on the same night the Nationals announced they were picking up the $4 million option on his contract -- tied the game, while Schneider's put the Nationals ahead to stay in the fifth.

The three homers, plus Vinny Castilla's two-run double in the sixth, provided the entirety of the Nationals' offense, on a night when Nick Johnson saw his 16-game hitting streak -- the longest in the majors this season -- end with an 0-for-4 performance.

Hernandez appeared out of sorts in the first inning. He glared at home plate umpire Brian Gorman over a couple of ball-strike calls. He pawed at the loose dirt near the foot of the pitcher's mound. He stood on the rubber impassively when catcher Schneider and pitching coach Randy St. Claire came to the mound to calm him down.

But by the end of the seventh, the Mets' first-inning run remained their only run, and Robinson thought Hernandez -- who had thrown 118 pitches to that point -- had had enough.

Five days earlier, in New York, Hernandez faced a similar situation and admitted to Robinson after the seventh that he was out of gas. So when Hernandez told him the exact opposite last night, Robinson believed him.

"He knows I'm not going to lie to him," Hernandez said. "I'm not going to lie about something like that, that's so important to the team."

When his final fastball blew past Diaz, Hernandez jerked his head forward, let out a shout and bounded exuberantly to his dugout. Then, and only then, was he done.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company