Cubs' Zambrano Shuts Down Nats

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

CHICAGO, May 16 -- When the first inning ended, Livan Hernandez looked to the sky above and raised his arms, giving thanks to the heavens for the perfect frame he had just pitched, a rarity in Hernandez's spring.

Nearly two hours later came another look skyward, another point to the powers that be. This one, though, came from Hernandez's counterpart, Chicago Cubs right-hander Carlos Zambrano, and it came not after just one scoreless inning, but after eight.

By that point, Hernandez was on the bench, done for the night, and Zambrano was merely finishing off the Nationals, on his way to a 4-0 victory that at least temporarily revitalized the slumping Cubs and guaranteed the Nationals would head back to Washington later this week with a losing record on their nine-game trip.

Hernandez, who had allowed 19 runs in the first inning alone this year, pitched better than he has of late, what with seven innings in which he allowed four runs, just two earned. But he was no match for the colorful, combative Zambrano, who is one of the few pitchers in baseball who can withstand the workload Hernandez prefers, throwing 120 or 130 pitches in a game.

Tuesday night, he effortlessly tossed eight innings, holding the Nationals to four singles, only twice allowing runners into scoring position. The top five hitters in Washington's lineup went a combined 2 for 18 with seven strikeouts against Zambrano, who now has allowed just one run in his three starts in May, a span of 23 innings. He left the Nationals muttering -- both during the game and after.

"I'm not in any mood to analyze why this team didn't hit tonight," Manager Frank Robinson said. "It's not the first time we didn't hit. We've been in this rut all season long. We can't put anything together. I don't know why we couldn't hit. Couldn't handle his fastball. Couldn't handle his off-speed stuff."

Really, what more analysis is needed? And, in some ways, the more important task Tuesday night was to gauge whether Hernandez was ready to reengage in the season. The lineup he faced is one that sorely misses slugger Derrek Lee, out with a broken wrist, and is the primary reason why the Cubs headed into Tuesday night with 12 losses in their previous 13 games, a span in which they scored more than three runs just twice.

Hernandez, though, could be an elixir for such maladies given his record of late. He had allowed four or more earned runs in six of his eight starts, and his inability to pitch his normal seven or eight innings has had a devastating trickle-down effect on the entire Nationals' pitching staff.

Yet at times Tuesday night, he looked like the Hernandez of old, pitching himself into trouble but then escaping virtually unscathed. "I feel much better than the last time," he said. "The location [of his pitches] was much better."

In the fourth inning, the Cubs took a 1-0 lead on a fielder's choice groundout from Aramis Ramirez, and they threatened for more, loading the bases with one out. But Hernandez somehow escaped when Roger CedeƱo hit a liner to left field that Alfonso Soriano snared near his shoe-tops.

The ball would have been a sacrifice fly, but Jacque Jones wandered too far off second, and Soriano doubled him off before Ramirez crossed the plate. The play -- which came just an inning after Soriano committed his fifth error of the year -- resulted in Soriano's seventh assist, and he leads the majors in both categories.

The Nationals, it would seem, could head to the dugout a bit relieved the damage wasn't worse. Except there was still the matter of facing Zambrano.

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