For Nats, No Cooling Off

Nick Johnson
Using a familiar winning formula, the Nationals take advantage of solid fielding from Nick Johnson and strong pitching from Livan Hernandez to beat Toronto, 5-2. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)

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By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 26, 2005

After hitting a batter and throwing a wild pitch, Livan Hernandez recorded his first strikeout, coercing the Toronto Blue Jays' Vernon Wells into chasing a wicked 63 mph curve in the first inning. The game hardly had begun last night and the Washington Nationals pitcher already had demonstrated his mastery of the game.

Displaying a dominance with his full arsenal of pitches, the Nationals' ace won his 10th consecutive decision, leading his team to a 5-2 home victory. When he finally left the mound with one out in the eighth, after the Blue Jays spoiled his shutout, Hernandez lifted his cap while walking from the field, saluting 39,881 fans who responded with cheers.

Hardly a day passes at RFK Stadium in which the Nationals don't accomplish something of consequence, be it winning in front of President Bush on Friday for the second time this season or further cementing their dominance in this ballpark. The latter was the case last night, when the Nationals ensured themselves of winning an eighth consecutive series at RFK.

They haven not lost a home series since late April, to the Philadelphia Phillies, and can tie the franchise record for consecutive home victories (13), which was established in 1979 when the team played in Montreal, with a win in today's series finale.

"It's crazy," left fielder Marlon Byrd said of the team's 26-9 home mark. "We have the 10th man on the field with this crowd."

In two games since returning to RFK, the Nationals have slid immediately back into the groove they were in before embarking on their recent nine-game road trip. Just like their last homestand, during which the Nationals went 12-1 and ascended to first place in the National League East, the foundation has been starting pitching.

Manager Frank Robinson had wanted to leave Hernandez (11-2) in as long as possible, allowing closer Chad Cordero much-needed rest. Hernandez, who said his sinker was working particularly well last night, threw 117 pitches, yielding seven hits and two earned runs.

Hernandez, who is 11-1 since struggling on Opening Day, made the all-star team last season as a Montreal Expo and could be en route to another appearance. Hernandez is closing in on former Montreal Expos pitcher Dennis Martinez's franchise record of winning 11 consecutive decisions in 1989.

But Hernandez encountered some trouble in the eighth after hitting third baseman Shea Hillenbrand with a pitch. Two batters later, catcher Gregg Zaun singled in Hillenbrand and Robinson pulled his starter.

"I was not [ticked] that I was taken out of the game," Hernandez said. "I was [ticked] I hit the batter. But if you like to come out of the game, you're not a real pitcher."

Robinson's choice from the bullpen, right-hander Luis Ayala, lasted only one batter. Another run scored on a fielder's choice, and Robinson opted for Cordero, who promptly retired the final four batters of the game to collect his major league-leading 25th save. Cordero said he had no worries coming in during the eighth inning. He was "looking forward" to the situation.

Hernandez was helped in large part by the Nats' defense, particularly Byrd, who made a diving catch and also threw a runner out trying for a double. For Byrd's effort, which also included two hits and two RBI, teammate Jose Guillen smeared shaving cream in his face following the game.

Early on, it looked like the Nationals might cruise. Second baseman Junior Spivey, batting second for only the second time this season, blasted a double to left field, advancing leadoff hitter Brad Wilkerson, who walked, to third. The next batter, Guillen, popped out in foul territory and slapped his heel afterward with the bat because of the missed opportunity.

His teammates quickly made up for it. First it was Nick Johnson, whose RBI single to left scored the first of two runs in the inning. Next, Byrd's blooper to shallow center field scored Spivey. The Nationals staked a 4-0 lead after three innings by virtue of only four hits.

"That's how it's been all season," Robinson said. "We don't kill people on offense. Tonight we maximized our hits." On this night, that would be all Hernandez needed.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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