Diamondbacks Are Counting On Hernandez's Magic Act

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007

DENVER, Oct. 13 -- Livan Hernandez had an appointment. People were waiting. He was unfazed. Reporters who desired a glimpse of his thoughts about his impending start in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series? Please. He eased from a cab late Saturday afternoon at Coors Field, an iPhone to his ear. Someone pointed him to a tent, where the microphones awaited.

"I got something to do," he responded, and strolled off, pacing a bit, before hanging up the phone. A golf cart came by, and officials urged him to get in, because he had to go. "I'll walk," he said, and so he did.

This is how Hernandez deals with such situations, simultaneously relishing the stage yet treating it with his own, special brand of nonchalance. Sunday night, he will take the mound for the Arizona Diamondbacks, a game Arizona must win to have a realistic chance of overcoming a two-games-to-none deficit and advancing to the World Series. Yet what is the fuss?

"You got a ball and the hitter got a bat," Hernandez said. "You gotta try to make people out different ways."

It would seem, then, that Hernandez has a simple approach to his craft. Yet behind such a facade is complexity. "Don't let him fool you," said Frank Robinson, his former manager in Montreal and Washington. "He's a very wise player."

It is that wisdom, both Hernandez and the Diamondbacks believe, that will allow him to defy the statistics that, it seems, should make him an easy mark for the slugging Rockies -- who, by the way, have won 19 of their last 20 games, including all five in the postseason. It is that wisdom that, it would seem, has allowed Hernandez to remain in the majors even as his velocity drops, even as he regularly throws pitches that barely register on the radar gun -- 61 mph, 59 mph, a comic book curveball in which Bugs Bunny would take pride.

That wisdom has also contributed to Hernandez's postseason record. Beginning with his rookie year of 1997 -- when he was newly defected from Cuba yet became the most valuable player of both the NLCS and the World Series, pitching the Florida Marlins to the title -- Hernandez's reputation has been that of a player who matches the level of his performance to the magnitude of the situation. His record in 11 postseason games stretched over four seasons -- 1997 with the Marlins, 2000 and 2002 with San Francisco and this year with the Diamondbacks -- is 7-2 with a 3.75 ERA.

"That's why we all play this game, for this time of year," said Robinson, a Hall of Famer who managed Hernandez from 2003 through the middle of 2006, when he was traded from Washington to Arizona. "He loves throwing in big games, because he doesn't get uptight. He doesn't let the moment bother him. He goes out there and just pitches his game, and understands his skills and abilities."

It can seem remarkable that he gets by with the skills and abilities he does have. Diamondbacks Manager Bob Melvin said earlier in the week, "When you sign on with Livan, you sign on for a certain style, and he's not going to alter that." Asked to elaborate Saturday, Melvin was clear.

"He's been a Houdini-type pitcher for the better part of the last four, five seasons," Melvin said. "There are some base runners out there when he pitches."

Take a Tums, Diamondbacks fans, because that is an understatement. Nobody in baseball allowed more than his 247 hits. Nobody allowed more than his 401 total bases. Only one pitcher allowed a higher batting average (.308), only one had a higher on-base percentage against (.371), only one a higher slugging percentage (.499).

This is the guy on which you hang your season?

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company