By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 26, 2006
BALTIMORE, June 25 -- Livan Hernandez walked out of his house Sunday morning, nine hours away from having to be at the ballpark for his turn in the Washington Nationals' rotation. He had decided, after a disaster in Boston, he needed a change. So out he went to the nearest movie theater to see "Waist Deep." He didn't get home until 2:45 a.m., but Hernandez wanted to sacrifice sleep for change.
"Every time I'm struggling, I got to do something different," Hernandez said. "Something's happening, I don't know."
Five days after enduring one of the worst outings of his career, Hernandez spun one of his finest starts this season, allowing three runs on six hits and three walks over six-plus innings in the Nationals' 9-5 victory over the Baltimore Orioles. With some help from a maligned bullpen, Hernandez earned his sixth win, snapping a three-game personal losing streak.
The performance followed a meltdown in Boston, when Hernandez lasted 1 2/3 innings in an ugly loss. Of the 14 batters he faced, 10 reached base and six scored.
"In Boston, I think they had a good plan," Hernandez said. "I felt good that day, and everything I threw, the guys were hitting, right field, left field, center field, everywhere. I want to pitch good every time. It's difficult."
After the start, pitching coach Randy St. Claire emphasized to Hernandez the importance of using the lower half of his body in his delivery, which increases the velocity of his fastball.
Hernandez didn't turn into a flamethrower -- one of his curveballs crossed the plate at 61 mph. But rather than hovering around 80 mph, Hernandez's fastball reached the mid-to-high 80s. He still can't overpower major league hitters with the pitch, but the extra velocity improved the effectiveness of his array of curveballs and sinkers.
"The difference is in his arm speed, so the deception of his breaking ball," St. Claire said. "There's a bigger spread between his breaking balls and his fastball. That deception, when they see that 86 or 87 arm speed, and then they get a 78 slider, 78 change-up, it's a totally different look at him.
"All of it -- his slider, his change-up -- all get better when the velocity of his fastball comes up. You see that same arm speed, and there's a 10, 11 mile an hour difference."
Perhaps as important as Hernandez's speed change was his opponent. Baltimore served as a salve for Hernandez for the second time this season. When the teams met May 21 in Washington, Hernandez stymied the Orioles for seven innings, allowing one run on seven hits. Against Baltimore this season, Hernandez is 2-0 with a 2.77 ERA.
"He's not one of my favorite guys to face," Orioles center fielder Corey Patterson said. "He has command of his pitches. Seems like he has like 10 different pitches. You never know what you're going to get in any count. Velocity doesn't matter. I don't care if you're throwing 77-78 mph if you're locating your pitches. The pitches are what make him tough."
The Orioles finally struck in the seventh, loading the bases with no outs. Nationals Manager Frank Robinson pulled Hernandez. The bullpen had played a large role in losing each of the series' first two games, but Bill Bray instead cut off a disaster in the making.
He induced a lazy sacrifice fly, then struck out the next two batters. For good measure, he struck out Brandon Fahey to begin the eighth.
Hernandez, at least for one start, regained the form that has made him the ace of the Nationals' staff.
"He was great," left fielder Marlon Byrd said. "That's what we expect out of him every day. We get spoiled with him just going out there and dealing against teams, shutting guys down."