Nationals Are Done In By Old Friend Hernández

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

MINNEAPOLIS, June 17 -- The opposing starters who brokered Tuesday night's pitching duel, a 2-1 Minnesota victory against Washington, met one time before this series at the Metrodome, long before their careers met at eye level. It was 2006, spring training. And there, John Lannan spotted Liván Hernández throwing in the bullpen. Lannan watched, and walked away.

"I mean, I was 21," Lannan said. "And he was Liván Hernández. I wasn't going to say anything to him."

By their next meeting, the series opener here, their respective statuses had changed, enabling not just a 1-hour 59-minute contest with 10 hits and four double plays, but also an absorbing backdrop, the kind you get when past encounters present, and what-if encounters what-is.

Hernández once was Washington's ace. Lannan, with seven innings and two earned runs Tuesday, just might be Washington's current one.

This offseason, Washington officials made cursory contact with Hernández, hopeful to add a veteran to their starting rotation. Instead, they entered the year with openings for all worthy takers, and Lannan -- after starting the season in Class AAA Columbus -- pitched his way, first, onto the big league roster and, then, into a certain role for the future.

Against the Twins, he made just one mistake, and it ended up some 421 feet away from home plate. With Washington leading 1-0 in the sixth, and with one runner already on, Lannan (4-8), threw an inside curveball to Justin Morneau. Nothing in Washington's scouting report suggested that was a wise move. "I shouldn't have been throwing that pitch in that situation," Lannan said.

Morneau swung, and the ball zipped toward the Metrodome upper deck on a vicious line. Like that, the Twins led 2-1.

All game, Hernández had control. Finally, he had a lead. If Hernández's 2008 numbers, even counting Tuesday's win -- 7-4, 5.51 -- indicate averageness, they deceive. Those who have followed the right-hander's career since it began more than 10 years ago with a defection from Cuba know that unorthodox rules govern Hernández's approach.

Some starters eat innings. Hernández devours them. Whether as the 22-year-old star who won a World Series MVP in 1997, or as workhorse who threw the first pitch in Washington Nationals history, or as the veteran who adopted a finesse approach when he lost his zipping fastball, Hernández has viewed himself not just as a starter, but a finisher. With Montreal in 2004, he led the majors in innings pitched, managing nine complete games -- or nine more than the Nationals had in 2007. By the way, he's never been on the disabled list.

Washington traded Hernández to Arizona in August 2006 for prospects Matt Chico and Garrett Mock, but his departure didn't diminish his influence. Even now, some in the Nationals' clubhouse view Hernández's right arm as the most bionic appendage in baseball. They recall how his willingness to stay in games helped an entire bullpen. They marvel how he'd throw 90 warmup pitches before games -- or twice what a typical Nationals starter will throw.

"When he starts a game, he plans on finishing," Washington pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "He doesn't plan on going five or six innings. I think that's the way he was brought up. In Cuba, they'd throw 150, 160 pitches. A lot of kids nowadays, everybody coddles them from Little League right up on through, and their pitch counts stay way down. So they never learn how to go deep in a game."

"He's a different breed," Manager Manny Acta said. "I've never seen anybody like him."

Washington, of course, decided not to reacquire Hernández this past offseason. Instead, he landed in Minnesota, where he started on Opening Day, pitched for the next month-plus like a starter worthy of such a designation, and then summarily unraveled. Before facing Washington, he had not won since May 12. In his previous five starts, he had given up 56 hits in 24 1/3 innings, the kind of batter-friendly rate that usually ceases in major league stadiums after the conclusion of batting practice.

That's why Washington, entering Tuesday's meeting with the 33-year-old, had no clue what to expect. The Nationals had studied his latest outings and remembered his old ones.

Just in time for this game, Hernández discovered his problems in vintage fashion. On Saturday, he spent 70 minutes in the bullpen, throwing 100 pitches. "Working on mechanics, stay close to home plate," Hernández explained.

His tendency in this game to throw early strikes prompted the Nationals' lineup to swing early, and make early outs. Acta called his lineup's approach "over-aggressive." Hernández retired the side in the fifth on five pitches. He needed just eight in the seventh, his final inning. Three times, ground ball double plays ended innings. Seventy-seven pitches, and that was all. The Twins' bullpen handled the rest.

"He's always amazing," Lannan said. "He just throws strikes, and he mixes it up well. He's not overpowering, but he knows how to pitch, and he always has known how to pitch. You always learn something when you watch a guy like that."

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