By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 21, 2005
The loss to the Colorado Rockies -- a 3-2 decision in which the Washington Nationals squandered opportunity after opportunity -- would have been enough to handle last night, for it was the second in three games to lowly Colorado, the National League's worst team, and meant the first-place Nationals have lost four straight series to mediocre opponents.
But then, with the team on the precipice of losing its lead in the National League East, came a bizarre postgame interview session with ace right-hander Livan Hernandez, who claimed he is contemplating having surgery on his problematic right knee, though he believes he could pitch if he feels like he did last night.
"I'm not going to say nothing," Hernandez said. " . . . And this is the best organization. After the season, I'm going to tell you something. Don't worry about it."
The meandering, difficult-to-follow exchange between Hernandez and reporters followed a seven-inning outing in which Hernandez tied a modern major league record by hitting four batters, failed to protect a 2-0 lead by allowing a two-run homer to Rockies catcher J.D. Closser -- who came into the game hitting .207 -- and suffered consecutive losses for the first time all season, dropping his record to 12-4.
But several times afterward, Hernandez said he would likely make a decision today as to whether to have surgery on his knee, which has bothered him since he left a start against the Chicago Cubs on May 14. To this point, Hernandez has adjusted his stride and delivery to compensate for the knee, and he became an all-star in the process.
But after last night's outing, he said something or someone had made him upset enough that he would consider having surgery -- whether he needed it or not.
"The knee is okay," Hernandez said. "I not say nothing about my knee is hurt. Nothing. I don't say nothing about my knee."
He said he has not had an MRI exam on the knee since May, and that he doesn't plan to have one. A Nationals spokesman said the training staff briefly looked at the knee after Hernandez came out of the game, and planned a follow-up examination today.
Manager Frank Robinson was caught off guard by Hernandez's remarks.
"I have no answers for you," Robinson said. "I don't have a full picture of it. I have no idea what's going on."
Yet at one point, Hernandez said the chances that he would decide to have surgery were "99.9 percent." In the next breath, he said he wouldn't abandon his team, which has lost 10 of 14 and had its lead in the NL East whittled to just a half-game over the Atlanta Braves.
"Listen, it's hard for me," Hernandez said. "You think it's easy, but it's not easy. It's not easy for me to make the decision. It's not easy.
"I love my teammates. I love this team. You know I would never quit. Never. Because I am not a quitter. Everybody knows me. I go over there and do my best."
Even the potential loss of Hernandez could be badly unsettling to a team that is anchored by its starting rotation. Hernandez, in turn, is the anchor of that rotation. His last win came July 1 in Chicago, when he brilliantly outdueled the Cubs' Mark Prior. The Nationals went on to sweep that series, giving them a six-game winning streak and a 5 1/2 -game lead in the division. Since then, they haven't won back-to-back games.
Last night's loss was more than just about Hernandez, and there were some in the organization who felt that the ace pitcher's remarks were made simply out of frustration that the Nationals couldn't score enough runs to support him. Seven times the Nationals came up with runners in scoring position, and seven times they failed.
In the eighth, for instance, with the Nationals trailing 3-2, Jamey Carroll led off with a walk, and Jose Vidro successfully bunted him to second. That brought up third-place hitter Brad Wilkerson and cleanup man Jose Guillen, each with a chance to tie the game against Rockies reliever Doug Miceli.
Wilkerson, though, struck out on a 3-2 pitch, his 100th strikeout of the year. And Guillen, who has just three RBI in seven games since the all-star break, followed by popping lazily to center field.
"I've been missing my pitches," Guillen said. "It's tough. I don't know how many guys I've been leaving on base. I know when I come to bat with people on base, they expect me to drive in the runs. But sometimes, it's not going to go my way. It's a tough sport. It's a tough game."
The Nationals had one last chance, when Ryan Church hit a two-out double in the ninth, moved to third on a wild pitch, and Rockies closer Brian Fuentes hit Carlos Baerga with a pitch. That brought the announced crowd of 32,381 to its feet, hoping pinch hitter Vinny Castilla -- badly hobbling on his ailing left knee -- could come through.
Castilla hit the ball solidly, but it was right at Colorado shortstop Desi Relaford. A dramatic end.
But then, the real drama -- Hernandez.
"When I come to the stadium tomorrow, I will see," Hernandez said. "I go to sleep tonight, I'm going to think about it. And that's it."