By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 2009
CHICAGO, Aug. 26 -- His old No. 61 jersey, stitched anew, hung in the clubhouse, and a few of his old teammates kept their eyes on the door, waiting for Liván Hernández to glide back into his old world. He walked in around 4:15 p.m., a veteran's entrance -- unannounced, but noticed. People watched him. His eyes didn't wander. He wore a brown dress shirt, and headphones hugged his neck. During a procession of hellos, Hernández placed his large right hand atop Elijah Dukes's head, a big brother greeting, and Dukes remarked, "You smell good. You smell like you just came out of Macy's."
He came back, after three years gone, but the key elements were still there for him to repossess. The ball. The rotation spot. That role as the pitcher everybody else wants to be, all swagger and self-assuredness.
If reunions followed the sweetest story lines, Hernandez would have won Wednesday night. Feeling good, looking better than he has in a long time, the newest warhorse on the Washington Nationals reassumed his vintage form, chugging through six innings, budging for just five hits and two runs -- not bad for an old guy with a 5.36 ERA. But after the old guy left, arsonist relief pitching and some shoddy fielding contributed to the Nationals' 9-4 defeat against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.
Washington's final two innings were so bad, they made a fair effort to shred the evidence of any earlier quality. Losing pitcher Jason Bergmann surrendered two hits in Chicago's go-ahead seventh. Then, in the six-run eighth, reliever Jorge Sosa faced seven hitters, walking two, serving up four hits, and all but treating 36,562 to a prolonged showing of public indecency.
But if you can somehow purge the final innings from your short-term memory, Washington's defeat actually left behind one very encouraging sign. Hernández, after all, had departed a 2-2 game.
"Liván did a real good job. Kind of vintage Liván," interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "Mixing his pitches up. We use that phrase a lot, changing speeds, but he really does -- he changes speeds on his fastball, changes speeds on his breaking ball, locates the ball well, kept people off balance and gave our club the chance to win."
Hernández does things few other pitchers in baseball can do, or dare try. He is on the ridiculous side of every bell curve, with an average fastball of 84.6 mph and an ability to throw more than 140 pitches in any night. In his first tenure with this organization (2003-06), he was an all-star and ace -- the strutting big leaguer, writ large. "He was The Guy," Bergmann said. "My locker was just a few down from him, and here I was, 23 years old or whatever, and he was just dominating hitters. To see him at eye level -- "
Hernández was here, swinging through the saloon door.
Signed by the Nationals on Tuesday and immediately inserted into the rotation, Hernández this time faced more modest expectations. The Nationals wanted the 34-year-old, released last week by the Mets, to eat up some innings and maybe teach some younger pitchers about preparation and toughness.
"It's nice. I always wanted to come back and pitch in D.C.," Hernández said. "I loved the city; I loved playing there always. I'm asking every year, Bring me back. Inside it's very emotional because I have family, the people I know -- I got like 60-some text messages saying, congratulations."
Since Hernández last pitched for the Nationals -- Aug. 6, 2006 -- he had been traded, twice released, and subject to a little old-age decline. But here, he turned in a sterling performance. He threw that 65 mph curve for goofy strikeouts. He went deep in counts, working the corners. He issued a Milton Bradley two-run homer in the third, which tied the game at 2, but never toppled, finishing the sixth with a 6-4-3 double play.
By the time he was swapped for a pinch hitter in the top of the seventh, Hernandez had thrown 116 pitches -- most by a Washington starter this season.
After the game, Hernández was back in the clubhouse, finishing off a potato and chicken dinner. He called his return to the Nationals "a dream come true," outcome aside, and admitted, "I feel proud when I put the hat today and the uniform. Trust me, it's very nice."