Hernandez Keeps Nationals Rolling

Royce Clayton slips, but flips the ball to Alfonso Soriano, who threw out Willy Aybar at second.
Royce Clayton slips, but flips the ball to Alfonso Soriano, who threw out Willy Aybar at second. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 27, 2006

This was the old Livan Hernandez once more -- scheming and conniving with tantalizingly slow change-ups, loopy curveballs and the occasional fastball just when he needs it. They had been missing him around here.

Again and again last night, the Los Angeles Dodgers fell in his trap, lunging at the 66 mph curve, diving at the slider that barely rose over 73 mph. They had roared in as the hottest team in baseball, second in the National League in hitting, first in runs scored. But all that was lost in the web of Hernandez.

This time, all those line drives turned into popups as he mesmerized them in a 10-4 victory.

Later, over the hum of a slow rap beat pounding in the Nationals' clubhouse, Hernandez was asked if he is now back. He paused for a moment, then smiled.

"I think," he said.

The Nationals certainly hope so. In this season of disappointment, Hernandez has been the biggest shock of all. Last year he was Washington's horse, the pitcher who carried them through the first half of the season, into first place. When all else went wrong, at least there was Livan.

But the old Livan hadn't been himself this season. His first innings turned into nightmares, none more dreadful than the day the Mets kept smashing home run after home run. Those days seem gone now. Last night's victory was his third of the year, but more important, it was the third straight quality start he has made, which gave hope that maybe the Nationals can start depending on their ace again.

"I always look for [a good start] when he goes out there," Washington Manager Frank Robinson said. "He's starting to put it together. And we're coming up with getting some runs to work with."

With Hernandez better, everything else is better, too. When he sent the Dodgers down 1-2-3 in the first inning, the Nationals -- who have now won four in a row and six of seven -- practically sprinted off the field. Then Alfonso Soriano went to work.

The team's leadoff hitter exploded again last night with two doubles, yet another home run and three runs. The home run, a blast to left field in the eighth inning, was hit so hard that left fielder Jose Cruz Jr. simply turned to watch it pound off the back wall of the stadium. It was his 17th home run of the year and 10th in RFK Stadium. That mark already ties him, two months into his Washington career, with Nick Johnson for the most home runs in the ballpark.

"He certainly makes things happen when he gets on," Robinson said of Soriano, who pushed his average to better than .300. "Then he can give you pop late in the ballgame. He's tough to pitch to."

Last night, Soriano started the Nationals with a line drive to right in the first that hit in front of Dodgers right fielder J.D. Drew and bounced past for a double. He then stole third and came home on Jose Vidro's single. After that, the Washington hitters could not be stopped. They pounded Los Angeles starter Brett Tomko, who had been excellent this season, for nine hits and six runs in 4 2/3 innings, then knocked around three relievers for another four runs.

Every player in the starting lineup got a hit. In fact, the 10 runs and 16 hits was the Nationals' highest total at RFK.

But something is stirring here, something that's making this look just the slightest bit like the start of last year, even with the Nationals still nine games under .500 and mired in fourth place in the National League East.

"I told you before this is a great team," Hernandez said. "Things just had to happen."

Hernandez is looking like the old Hernandez. Soriano is hitting -- last night he also had his ninth assist of the year -- and even the slumping Johnson had two hits in the Washington bombardment.

"Everyone's bats are coming around," Robinson said. "It's kind of catching. These things happen and you can't explain it. All of a sudden you have success in the lineup."

And in the bullpen too. After reliever Joey Eischen came in for Hernandez and walked the first two batters, Saul Rivera, in only his second major league game came in to strike out Jeff Kent.

The crowd gave him a standing ovation on the crazy night that the magic was back in RFK.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company