By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
NEW YORK, May 26 -- Adam Dunn is not some old warhorse. He is still 29 years old. When his second-inning single dropped into left field, Dunn didn't even know the significance. And maybe there wasn't much. Later, after the ball had been collected, marked ("1,000th Hit") and stashed in the top shelf of Dunn's locker, the right fielder acknowledged that the milestone was "pretty cool." Pretty cool, only because it represented the first step toward longevity.
Dunn is now on his third team, and in his ninth big league season. He's played in enough games (4,031) and endured enough losing seasons (no playoff trips) to know how to compartmentalize dreary games in late-May, like the one the Washington Nationals lost on Tuesday to the Mets, 6-1. Just like you don't celebrate quasi-milestones, you don't mourn the games where nothing goes right. You just come back the next day, and find your roots a bit deeper in the ground.
For the Nationals and for Dunn, those roots mean different things. The team is planted firmly in last place, with a 13-32 record. But the outfielder -- who also added hit No. 1,001, a home run in the seventh -- has a root system that grows right along with his career's history. Yes, he remembers his first hit. July 20, 2001. "Matt Clement," Dunn said. "Just a lousy single. Start it off." Since then, he's gotten hits against everybody from Mike Adams (2 for 4) to Carlos Zambrano (13 for 56). He's even gotten hits against eight current teammates.
Hit No. 1,000 came off Liván Hernández, who precisely meets the definition of a warhorse. What he lacks in longevity, he makes up for with durability. On Tuesday, Hernández threw the kind of game (a complete game nine-hitter) that Dunn -- if he backs away, and tries to forget about the loss it caused his team -- can appreciate. Dunn hits in the same manner that Hernández pitches. Both wait, content to go deep into counts. Neither gives in. Before Tuesday, Dunn had two hits in 17 at bats against the soft-throwing righty. On this night, Dunn reached base three times. With his 15th home run of the season, an opposite-field shot straight down the line, Dunn now has more homers than any Washington player last season.
Dunn's home run was the only run Hernández allowed.
"He's definitely not going to give in to you. When he's making pitches like he was tonight, he's tough," Dunn said. "He's like a Greg Maddux. He sits there, and he knows what your flaw is, and he's gonna pitch to it. It might be some very boring at-bats, but that is why he's still pitching now."
Hernández, 34, throws fastballs in the low- and mid-80s and change-ups that sometimes hit 60 mph, approaching the plate like hot air balloons. His confidence trumps his repertoire. In vintage style, he refused to give in -- first to Washington, then to his own pitch count. He finished off the ninth, the crowd standing, with his 127th pitch, an 80 mph change-up that forced a Josh Bard strikeout.
It was the 38th complete game of Hernández's career. And it was aided by Washington's suddenly slumping offense, which has now scored two or fewer runs in four of its last five games. In three of the first six innings, the Nationals grounded into double plays. Hernández pitched the sort of game that few in baseball can replicate -- or would even dare to. In the seventh, immediately following the Dunn homer, Hernández struck out Josh Willingham with four straight 81 mph pitches and a 63 mph curve.
"I think he stays with his gameplan, which is based on his command," Manager Manny Acta said. "He stays away and away, just nibbles and makes guys chase pitches off the plate. So when he's on, he's going to get guys chasing pitches and guessing and over-thinking at the plate, and today was one of those days."
Sure, the Nationals had a few things they could later lament. Bard, trying to score from second on a single in the fifth, was thrown out on a close-shave play. Craig Stammen, making his second big league start, lacked the dominant sinker and survived five innings with three earned runs. Then, in the seventh, reliever Jason Bergmann turned a 3-1 game into a 6-1 game by allowing Gary Sheffield to smoke a homer to left, one row deep.
Aside from Dunn, Washington had little to get excited about. Speaking about his 1,000th hit, Dunn emphasized that it didn't mean too much. He didn't know about the milestone until he rounded first, and heard first base coach Marquis Grissom congratulate him.
"I think if you play long enough and you play every day -- 1,000 hits, I don't really want to underplay it, but to me it's not one of those big, significant numbers," Dunn said. "To me when you start getting to 1,500, 2,000, 2,500 -- those are some pretty big numbers."