By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
Livan Hernandez's problems began in the first inning, just as they have so often during his troubling start to this sluggish Washington Nationals season. A single got it started, a double and an error deepened his crisis, and by the time his laborious inning ended at RFK Stadium, the deficit was three runs.
Hernandez didn't have a terrible night, but he did find a way to place the Nationals into an early predicament, one they were never able to overcome in a 4-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds before 19,264 -- the smallest home turnout since the club relocated to Washington last year.
Hernandez (1-3) allowed another run in the second and Washington couldn't do much against Elizardo Ramirez, a 23-year-old right-hander making his fifth career start and first since being called up from Class AAA Louisville to replace the injured Eric Milton in the rotation.
Hernandez -- who has allowed 12 first-inning runs in five starts this year -- yielded just two harmless singles after the second inning, but the damage had been done.
"I'm ready for the game, but I don't know what happened in the first inning," said Hernandez, who left in the seventh inning. "I try to make people out, but it's not happening. I try to put it out of my mind. I have a bad inning and that's it."
Commenting on Hernandez's first-inning woes this year, exasperated Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said: "I don't know what it is. I'm just on the side looking at it and the runs are going up on the board."
The runs are not going up on the board for the Nationals (7-12, 1-5 at RFK), who on Sunday, despite 11 hits, scored just once against the Braves, and last night managed only one extra-base hit among their six.
Ramirez also experienced a shaky first inning, but unlike Hernandez, limited the damage to two hits and one run, and found himself in a jam just once more before leaving in the eighth and eventually earning his first major league victory.
Ramirez, who also contributed his first hit in the majors, retired 12 straight at one point as the Reds improved to 13-7, their best 20-game start in 12 years.
"It's not just Ramirez, we don't seem to be able to handle pitchers we don't know," Robinson said. "He mixed up his pitches pretty good, he moved it around, but still we weren't very selective and weren't very patient against him. . . . I don't know what the panic or what the rush is; you've got to have a game plan and hit to your strength."
Shortstop Royce Clayton had the only extra base hit -- a double into the right field corner that deflected off Austin Kearns's glove in the fifth -- but he and his teammates couldn't solve the Reds' starter.
"He was able to keep us off balance," Clayton said, "but we were flat."
The poor start doomed Hernandez and the Nationals. Ryan Freel led off with a single. Felipe Lopez followed with a hard grounder that skipped over the first base bag and down the line. When Jose Guillen bobbled the ball, Freel raced home and Lopez scampered to third.
Adam Dunn then brought home Lopez with a slow grounder to first, but the Reds weren't done. Kearns singled to center and, after Scott Hatteberg fouled out, Edwin Encarnacion drove a 3-2 pitch into the left field corner. Kearns was running on the play and scored easily, stretching the lead to 3-0.
The Nationals bounced back in the bottom of the inning, sparked by Alfonso Soriano, who, after leading off with a single, hustled to second on Vidro's fly ball. Nick Johnson followed with a single to right, scoring Soriano, but Ramirez settled down the rest of the inning -- and the game.
Hernandez labored through the second inning as well, but his defense didn't help. Javier Valentin led off by slicing a drive toward the left field corner. Soriano had no real chance of catching it, but dived anyway, allowing the ball to skip to the fence and turn a double into a triple. Lopez later looped a single to right to make it 4-1.
Hernandez found his rhythm after the second inning, facing just two batters over the minimum the next five frames. His teammates, however, failed to help his cause with their bats.
In the sixth, Vidro singled with one out and Johnson walked. Guillen followed with a single to center, scoring Vidro to make it 4-2. Ryan Zimmerman then sent a high chopper to third, Encarnacion stepped on the bag for the force, but his throw to first was wild, putting two runners in scoring position. On the next pitch, however, Ryan Church popped out.
The Nationals rallied again in the eighth against Ramirez and two relievers, but with a pair of runners aboard, Zimmerman sent a lazy fly to right.
Asked how concerned he is about Hernandez, Robinson replied: "I'm no more concerned about him than I am about [Brian] Schneider and Zimmerman and the rest of the guys who are not performing up to their capabilities."