By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
BOSTON, June 20 -- Here were the two guys to defy any obsession with radar guns, who respond to urges for harder and faster with softer and slower. Tim Wakefield took the mound Tuesday night for the Boston Red Sox, armed with a glove and a knuckleball, the tools that have helped him forge a 14-year career in the majors. Livan Hernandez countered for the Washington Nationals, and his arsenal includes a fastball, a slider, a change-up and a curve, each fluttering slower than the last.
But by the time Wakefield threw his last pitch of the night, Hernandez's evening was long over, and the concerns about his ability to resurrect his season were born anew. He lasted all of five outs in an 11-3 humiliation at the hands of Wakefield and the Red Sox, matching the shortest outing of his career on a night when the Nationals needed far more.
"They beat me, and they beat me bad," Hernandez said. "I got no excuse."
And the Nationals have no answers for what is going on with the man who is, ostensibly, their ace. His 1 2/3 -inning, eight-hit, six-run performance Tuesday had him walking limply from the mound in the second, the Red Sox well on their way to collecting a season-high 17 hits. There would be no duel with Wakefield, whose knuckleball danced for six innings, in which he allowed one run, making the Nationals flail away.
"He just has a nasty knuckleball, man," first baseman Robert Fick said. "He doesn't fall behind too much. . . . Shoot, he's been doing it a long time, and he is pretty damn good."
When Wakefield is at his best, he doesn't need to throw pitches faster than 70 mph. When Hernandez is at his best, his four-seam fastball can touch 88 mph. Though it's not his primary weapon, it's important that he have it available, because it sets up his vast array of off-speed stuff. His curveball can look like a joke, something lobbed in at 60 mph, perhaps not enough to break a pane of glass.
But on nights such as Tuesday, when Hernandez doesn't have the velocity on his fastball, the results can be disastrous. And when he performs as he did against the Red Sox -- allowing 10 base runners in less than two innings, pushing his ERA to 5.64 -- there are immediately questions about his health.
"Everything is good," Hernandez said. But he knows his surgically repaired knee affected him early in the season. When he won four consecutive starts in late May and early June, his fastball jumped back up. Now?
"I have no idea," Manager Frank Robinson said.
Randy St. Claire, the team's pitching coach, said he plans to talk to Hernandez on Wednesday to find out if there are any physical problems.
"He was throwing the ball pretty good" on the winning streak, St. Claire said. "And then, his last three starts, he's pitching back to 78-83 [mph on his fastball]. He hit 85 a couple times today -- max. It's very difficult to pitch at that velocity."
And so the Red Sox jumped on him. Their second inning featured six hits, including a two-run single by Mark Loretta, who drove in three on the night, and doubles by Doug Mirabelli and Trot Nixon, who had three hits. That all set up Wakefield, who had received precious few runs in his last three starts.
"It was unbelievable," Wakefield said. "I have always said this, that it makes our jobs as starting pitchers a lot easier when we get some runs on the board early."
So Wakefield cruised, retiring 14 of the first 15 men he faced. Robinson, with more than half a century in the game, said in the afternoon that he has heard myriad theories on how to hit a knuckleball -- move up in the batter's box, swing at the first strike, wait an extra second -- but had never figured out what really works. And when the ball moves, forget about it.
"He got it dancing tonight," said right fielder Jose Guillen, who drove in the only run off Wakefield with a bases-loaded walk in the sixth. That's when the Nationals mounted their only threat against him, loading the bases with no outs in a game the Red Sox led 8-0. But Wakefield, who is battling a tender back, fought through it, striking out Marlon Anderson and Ryan Zimmerman and getting Fick to fly out to left.
"We kind of got to put this game away," said Fick, and that is a logical objective, because nothing good came of it. But the impact of Hernandez's performance will be felt Wednesday as well. He led the National League in innings pitched for three straight seasons, from 2003 to '05, and the Nationals can't afford him to last 1 2/3 innings, something he hadn't done since July 2000 against Colorado, previously the shortest outing of his career. The Nationals have used seven relievers in the two losses to the Red Sox.
"Tomorrow," Robinson said, "I don't know what we'll do."
They will, first of all, try to fix Hernandez. He said after the game that he does not consider his season finished. He pointed out that in 2000, when he won 17 games for San Francisco, he had only seven victories in the first half. But his ERA before the all-star break then was 4.25, more than a run better than it is now.
"I'm working every day," Hernandez said. "I know I'm going to be better, but it's difficult right now."