Familiar Scenario Haunts Hernandez

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 11, 2006

CINCINNATI, May 10 -- What must be going through his mind as he walks off the mound at the end of the first inning, when Livan Hernandez disgustedly takes the glove off his left hand and carries it with his right? Wednesday night, he looked up at the scoreboard at Great American Ball Park. His Washington Nationals teammates had provided him with a two-run lead, an advantage he gave right back. He shook his head.

Technically, the Nationals didn't lose Wednesday night until reliever Mike Stanton allowed a tiebreaking two-run double from Scott Hatteberg in the eighth, the blow that provided the decisive runs in a 9-6 victory for the Cincinnati Reds. But the origins of the loss came in that opening frame, when Hernandez allowed the Reds three runs, continuing a disturbing trend in which he simply can't seem to work through the first inning.

This is now a full-blown crisis. Hernandez, who led the National League in innings pitched each of the last three seasons, has allowed 16 earned runs in his eight first innings this year. Only twice has he opened a game with a scoreless frame. The whole matter had him standing at his locker afterward, introspective about his problems, about his place on the team and the feelings fans might have toward him.

"I know people get frustrated because they see me [and I don't] get there," Hernandez said, remaining calm. "I want to be there, but it's not happening. I know a lot of people may be mad at me, because when you're not doing good, the people go away from you. Only the friends stay around you, but I don't care.

"I [came] into this country by myself, 19 years old, and it's difficult for me. I understand, when you're not doing good, people go away."

This is the proud, defiant Hernandez who needs to appear on the mound. He arrived from Cuba more than a decade ago and pitched the Florida Marlins to a World Series championship as a rookie. Last season, he won 11 straight decisions in a magical first half, after which he was named to the all-star team. He did it by pitching himself into trouble, then masterfully pitching out of it, an escape artist better than Houdini.

This season, it is the opposite. He has but one win, and his ERA is a bloated 6.52. When Hernandez gets in trouble, it spreads like a virus. The simple start to the first Wednesday night: a one-out single by Reds shortstop Felipe Lopez. Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson had put Washington up 2-0 with his ninth homer of the year in the top of the first, but the way Hernandez is pitching now, just one base hit can mean trouble.

"You're certainly there wondering what's going to happen," Manager Frank Robinson said Wednesday afternoon, even before Hernandez took the mound. "Is he going to get out of this inning? . . . You get a man on base, and you think, 'I hope this isn't the start of something bad.' That's what it does. It's not a lack of confidence. It's just that you don't know what to expect. You've seen negative quite often this year, so you always have bad thoughts."

They are, too often, justified. Cincinnati left fielder Adam Dunn sent an 0-1 pitch from Hernandez into the back rows of the stands in right, and three batters in, the Reds had tied it. By the end of the first, Hernandez had allowed more hits (four) than he had recorded outs, and he mixed in a pair of walks.

"His pitches used to move a lot," second baseman Jose Vidro said. "I haven't seen that type of movement on his ball right now. He's just going through a really bad time. I've never lost confidence in him. I'm just waiting for him to be the pitcher he is."

Without that, the Nationals have no hope of fighting their way back to respectability. Wednesday, long after Hernandez had allowed five runs in his 5 1/3 -inning, 111-pitch odyssey, they gamely came back, tying the game at 6-6 in the top of the eighth when Brian Schneider and Matthew LeCroy came through with two-out, run-scoring hits.

"When you don't win a ballgame," Robinson said, "you don't get any points for coming back."

Stanton understands. He began the bottom of the eighth by walking Dunn, then allowed a double to Austin Kearns, who went 4 for 4. After an intentional walk loaded the bases, Stanton threw one cut fastball that Hatteberg fouled off, and another, slightly higher, that the first baseman drilled over the head of Marlon Byrd in center, the key hit in a three-run inning.

"The guys fought back, got us back even," Stanton said. "And then to go out there and give it right back the very next inning is unacceptable."

As is Hernandez's performance in the first inning. Robinson said he has spoken to Hernandez about the issue. His response? "Not much," Robinson said.

Hernandez, once again, insisted Wednesday night that his surgically repaired right knee is "perfect." He said, several times, "I no going to make an excuse," and so he didn't.

Rather, he stood in front of his locker, talking about the support he gets from his family, how he will show up at the ballpark and work hard for his next start, how he won't allow frustration and disappointment to creep into his head.

Yet when that next start comes, and Hernandez takes the mound in the first, there will be knots in the stomachs of those that run the Nationals.

"Trust me: I'm going to be better," Hernandez said. "I know. I know something good is coming, because it's not going to be like that the whole year."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company