In Nats' Loss, Former Mates Use Old Tricks on Each Other

Alfonso Soriano's latest bid for a 40th steal to go with 45 homers is thwarted by third baseman Chad Tracy after a pickoff move by pitcher Livan Hernandez.
Alfonso Soriano's latest bid for a 40th steal to go with 45 homers is thwarted by third baseman Chad Tracy after a pickoff move by pitcher Livan Hernandez. (Photos By Paul Connors -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006

PHOENIX, Sept. 13 -- Brian Schneider had never been in such a situation, so intimately familiar with a subject yet completely unsure of how to approach it. For 3 1/2 seasons, Schneider was Livan Hernandez's catcher, his sounding board, one half of his brain. Wednesday afternoon, Schneider caught yet again for the Washington Nationals. And when he came to the plate, the big Cuban stared back at him, his old buddy Hernandez wearing the purple cap of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"He knows everything I throw," Hernandez said afterward, smiling.

Schneider was, it seemed, the only National to have a consistently solid approach against Hernandez, who subdued the Nationals over eight excellent innings, leading the Diamondbacks to a 4-2 victory, the only time Arizona defeated Washington in six tries this season.

"I got a lot of friends on that team," Hernandez said. "But baseball's baseball."

The highlights will show Hernandez as Hernandez -- "Livo's Livo," Schneider said -- mixing speeds from a 59-mph curveball to a fastball that topped out at 86 mph. They will show Nationals right-hander Tony Armas Jr. yielding four solo homers and failing to get out of the fourth inning, a disturbing theme for Washington starters on this seven-game road trip that yielded just two wins. They will show Nationals left fielder Alfonso Soriano -- just one steal shy of becoming the fourth player with 40 homers and 40 stolen bases in the same season -- getting picked off second by Hernandez, foiled again.

But the most interesting aspect of a September game between two teams that are out of the playoff chase might have been the back-and-forth between the old battery mates. Schneider and Hernandez were the pair behind the plate and on the mound when the Nationals beat the Diamondbacks on April 14, 2005, the first regular season major league game in Washington in 34 years. Schneider caught the ceremonial first pitch from President Bush, Hernandez took a shutout into the eighth inning, and RFK Stadium rocked because of them both.

On Aug. 7 of this year, however, the Nationals traded Hernandez to the Diamondbacks for a pair of pitching prospects, left-hander Matt Chico and right-hander Garrett Mock. The deal was the kind the Nationals hope to make more of, propping up a minor league system that has been bereft of talent by trading away more expensive veterans.

The move, which made financial and baseball sense, nonetheless left a hole in the Washington rotation. How gaping was it? Consider that with Armas's 3 1/3 -inning outing Wednesday, Nationals starters completed four innings just twice on this trip. Armas has been particularly frustrating, failing to complete four innings in seven of his last 14 starts.

"I feel like I'm digging a hole I can't get out of," Armas said. "But like I said before, I got to get out of it myself. I can't ask you guys or nobody. I got to get out of it myself."

Hernandez has made a career of getting himself out of holes, and now that he is nearly all the way over a knee injury and his mechanics are closer to normal, he can do so more regularly. He did it in the first, when Soriano and Felipe Lopez opened the game with hard singles. Hernandez began the extraction by whirling to catch Soriano off second. Second baseman Orlando Hudson threw on to third to nail Soriano, and the wait for 40-40 continued. Soriano has been caught three times since swiping his 39th bag on Sunday.

"I just think he's trying to force the issue a little bit too much," Manager Frank Robinson said. "In this game a lot of times, if you want something real bad, it doesn't come."

Soriano didn't dismiss that idea, but tried to think of the situation positively. He will now likely make history back home at RFK during the upcoming six-game homestand.

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