Nationals' Hernandez Plays an Ace

nick johnson
Nats outfielder Preston Wilson, right, welcomes first baseman Nick Johnson home after Johnson's solo homer in the ninth inning Sunday. (Wilfredo Lee - AP)
By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 1, 2005

MIAMI, July 31 -- Under the blazing south Florida sun, Livan Hernandez toiled, his face glistening, his gray jersey drenched with sweat. In the game when the Nationals needed him at his best, their best pitcher was pulling out every trick he had against the Florida Marlins.

In came the 84-mph fastball and the looping 60-mph curve that seemed to hang for minutes in the sticky air. He stopped a squeeze play, firing a fastball above the head of Marlins pitcher Brian Moehler, leaving base runner Alex Gonzalez trapped and helpless halfway between third base and home plate.

And when the team that can't hit desperately needed something to roll into the Dolphins Stadium outfield, it was Hernandez who dribbled what would become the deciding hit into right field during this 4-2 victory.

Thus it was their ace who saved them, ending the six-game losing streak.

Afterward, he stood in front of his locker underneath a throbbing speaker and said: "I want to win every time. I try to win -- you want to end the losing streak."

All around, as the players laughed and shouted and watched Manny Ramirez on a clubhouse television the size of a small scoreboard, the Nationals began speaking in double-superlatives.

"That was huge today," catcher Gary Bennett said of Hernandez's performance. "Huge. Huge."

"How big was it?" Manager Frank Robinson asked. "Big. Big."

First place had long disappeared, the wild-card lead left two nights before. Another loss and Washington might have given up any hope of straightening out a season suddenly slipping away.

But the Nationals had Hernandez, and with Hernandez they have a chance. After all, he had stopped the Braves earlier in the week before Chad Cordero blew the save in the ninth. This time, he fought his way through the Marlins lineup, giving up enough hits to get into trouble but throwing enough fastballs on the outside corner to get himself out of the predicaments. Which meant it was a typical Hernandez game.

In the second, with the Marlins already up 1-0, he saw Gonzalez on third with the pitcher Moehler up and called for Bennett to come to the mound. Together they smelled squeeze.

"Make sure you cover the bunt," Bennett said to the pitcher.

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