Hernandez Manages A Good Afternoon

Alex Escobar, right, celebrates his two-run home run with Luis Matos. Escobar, hitting .429, also had a game-winning base hit on Friday night.
Alex Escobar, right, celebrates his two-run home run with Luis Matos. Escobar, hitting .429, also had a game-winning base hit on Friday night. (By Nick Wass -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 23, 2006

They are in last place in the National League East and they talk of baseball only in the sense that their players might soon don other uniforms, finding themselves in pennant races flung far and wide, just not at RFK Stadium. But place right-hander Livan Hernandez directly behind left fielder Alfonso Soriano in the line of current Washington Nationals who say, at least for now, they would like to remain here.

"I'm a National," Hernandez said late yesterday afternoon, shortly after he beat the Chicago Cubs with six decent innings in a 7-3 victory. "I'm a Washington player. I represent these colors, this city, and I want to be here for the new stadium."

Yet an effort like yesterday's -- in which Hernandez allowed three runs in six innings, including a pair of solo homers to Aramis Ramirez -- just might have the opposite effect on Hernandez's chances of staying here.

This season has largely been lost for the portly pitcher who, at one point, was Washington's most reliable starter. The lingering effects of offseason surgery on his right knee have prevented Hernandez from consistently pushing off the rubber, driving the velocity on his fastball to 88 or 89 mph. The trickle-down effect of establishing the ability to reach the high 80s -- even occasionally -- is more important for Hernandez than any other pitcher on the Washington staff, because it allows him to set up his absurdly slow breaking pitches.

"When he gets there, that means his lower half is working much better, and everything falls into place," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "If he does what he did today, and uses his lower half like he did, there's no reason he can't pitch like he has in years past."

Yesterday, Hernandez said the knee felt "perfect" when he was warming up, and it stayed that way. That could have a far greater impact on Washington's long-term fortunes than it did in yesterday's game. As one National League front-office member said yesterday, "This is a big start for Livan's future."

He responded by allowing two runs in the first inning, but pitched far more like the Hernandez of 2005 thereafter. In the bottom of the sixth, Manager Frank Robinson lifted him for pinch hitter Alex Escobar -- a move that looked brilliant when Escobar, shaking off a strained right hamstring, drilled a two-run homer that took a one-run lead and made it 6-3.

The blow, Escobar's second homer when hitting for Hernandez in the last week, came in the middle of an odd weekend for Escobar, a former top prospect who has a startling propensity for getting injured. Friday night, he hit a two-run single in the eighth to give the Nationals a 7-6 victory over the Cubs, a play on which he strained his hamstring. He was available only to hit yesterday, and it all comes just when he was making the most of his chance. In 13 games with the Nationals, he is hitting .429 with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.163.

"Believe me, this kid feels worse than I do about" the injury, Robinson said. "He feels bad about it, because he knows he's got an opportunity, and he knows that he has finally started to show what he's capable of doing."

Escobar's homer helped erase some earlier base-running mistakes from the otherwise brilliant Soriano, who was twice thrown out at the plate in the midst of a game in which he went 4 for 5 with three doubles and a triple. If the constant trade rumors that swirl around Soriano are bothering him, he's not showing it -- hitting .467 and slugging 1.100 since the all-star break.

"It's very tough to not think about it," Soriano said. "Sometimes, I don't want to watch TV. I don't want to listen to the radio. I don't want to answer my phone."

The other Nationals, too, worry about their teammates who are most likely to be shipped out as the team tries to gather young players who might help them compete for a division championship in three or four seasons. None has had a greater impact than Soriano, who is drawing interest from at least five teams -- and possibly more. Scouts and executives at RFK this weekend speculated that Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden will try to hold onto Soriano as long as he can before the July 31 trade deadline, hoping to raise the price.

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