Nats, Hernandez Melt Down
Saturday, August 6, 2005
The glove went first, ripped from Livan Hernandez's left hand and tossed into the stands behind the home dugout at RFK Stadium. Shortly after he walked down the steps, his red Washington Nationals hat fluttered in the air above the dugout, flung from the darkness underneath, settling into the seats. Next came his warmup jacket, with the same general destination.
"A souvenir," Hernandez said afterward, an attempt at a joke.
But underneath the dugout, there was no joking about gifts to the RFK faithful. Hernandez exploded for the second time in less than three weeks, a precursor to a difficult 6-5 loss to the San Diego Padres, a game in which Hernandez led, trailed, led again, and ultimately departed by sending a series of parting gifts to the crowd.
"No, no, I'm not angry," Hernandez said afterward. "I was giving it to the guy. I do a lot of stuff that people think I'm angry."
Had the incident come after the game -- the Nationals' 12th straight loss in one-run games -- perhaps it could have been better understood. The Nationals, who had won two straight for the first time in more than a month, coughed up a 5-4 eighth-inning lead on a fisted single from Eric Young off reliever Gary Majewski, then allowed the winning run in the ninth when shortstop Cristian Guzman bobbled a ball, allowing the leadoff man to reach base and eventually become the winning run.
So after a tumultuous month of July, the club's brief flirtation with stability ended in front of an announced crowd of 34,492, who watched the Nationals lose for just the third time in the 35 games in which they have scored five or more runs. And afterward, as Hernandez and his teammates played down the glove-tossing incident, there was indication of more turmoil ahead. Jose Guillen, the combustible right fielder, said his aching left shoulder had become so problematic that he was determined not to play again until it was completely healed.
"I just met with the trainers, and that's what we decided," Guillen said after going 0 for 4 with two weak popups and two strikeouts. "I feel embarrassed. I keep hitting these little balls. Nothing. No power. It's just dead. I'm hurting myself and hurting the team."
Guillen has said such things before, in fact as recently as last night, an hour before the game, he said he was taking himself out of the lineup because of the shoulder, yet when the Nationals took the field, he ran to his spot in right. But afterward, he insisted that he would have an MRI exam at 10:30 this morning, and that he had no timetable for his return.
"I'm not coming back until I'm 100 percent," he said.
Guillen's recent ineffectiveness, and his apparent impending loss, would be enough. Without a healthy and happy Hernandez, the Nationals are far from 100 percent. From the beginning last night, Hernandez wasn't the pitcher who won 13 games, who became an all-star and carried the entire staff in the first half. He allowed single runs in the first, third, fourth and fifth -- just the second time in his last 20 starts that he had given up as many as four earned runs.
"I try to stay in the game, try to win," Hernandez said. "I know this wasn't my day. From the first inning, I know it was going to be a hard day. I just have nothing today."
Yet even with that, the Nationals scored three in the fifth off Padres starter Woody Williams, taking a 5-4 lead on a two-out, two-run single from catcher Gary Bennett, playing for regular Brian Schneider, who sat out for a third straight night because of a shoulder problem of his own.
Given the comeback, this appeared to be exactly the kind of game Hernandez would battle through. But for the Padres, the hits kept coming. They singled twice to lead off the sixth. Hernandez retired the next two hitters, but by that point, with the left-handed hitting Brian Giles coming up, Manager Frank Robinson preferred lefty Joey Eischen. There have been times this season when Robinson would let Hernandez work out of a difficult situation. Not this one, because even at that point -- in the sixth, having thrown just 94 pitches -- Hernandez had already allowed a season-high 12 hits.
"That compares to nothing, to any game that he's pitched this year," Robinson said. "This game had no signs of any games that he's pitched this year. . . . Ray Charles could see that Livan Hernandez was not right tonight."
Initially, Hernandez didn't look upset, taking his traditional saunter back to the dugout. But he was several strides from going underneath the roof when he first tossed his glove, which landed in the section directly behind the dugout. One fan caught it, placed it on a seat, and another grabbed it, refusing to give it back to team officials who later discovered Hernandez wanted it. The hat and the jacket came next, and though Hernandez couldn't be seen, several Nationals turned their heads to watch their voluble starter's actions as he headed to the clubhouse. He knocked over a water cooler, retreated down the tunnel, returned and threw some more items.
"These are tough times," Robinson said, "and this is when you want and expect your veteran players and your leaders . . . to take charge and not let other things, outside things, affect the way you react or feel, or let it affect your performance."
The latest incident follows the season's most significant explosion, when Hernandez -- who has struggled with a balky right knee all year -- said he might not pitch again following his July 20 start, a 3-2 loss to Colorado in which he gave up a two-run homer to light-hitting Rockies catcher J.D. Closser. Hernandez's tirade continued the next day, after he was upset with some media coverage of the incident -- particularly that by ESPN -- before he calmed down and said he was committed to pitching the rest of the season.
Strangely, though, it wasn't Hernandez's glove-tossing that lost the game. After Young got to Majewski in the eighth, Mark Sweeney hit a grounder that Guzman bobbled. Closer Chad Cordero then surrendered a single to Mark Loretta, and Sweeney scored the unearned winner on Robert Fick's bloop to center, a play on which center fielder Brad Wilkerson actually forced out Loretta at second.
"We let a win get away tonight," Robinson said. "We can't afford to do that this time of year."