Nationals Lose to Padres Despite Livan Hernandez's Strong Start

Nationals starting pitcher Liván Hernández has his best stuff on a late-summer night in San Diego, retiring 13 in a row and 18 of 19 at one point.
Nationals starting pitcher Liván Hernández has his best stuff on a late-summer night in San Diego, retiring 13 in a row and 18 of 19 at one point. (By Lenny Ignelzi -- Associated Presss)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

SAN DIEGO, Aug. 31 -- Sometimes, losses feel almost conspiratorial. Sometimes, the circumstances don't quite add up: The starting pitcher retires 13 in a row and 18 of 19 and loses. That same pitcher reaches base two times, but costs himself by bunting into a double play. A lineup weak at the top and bottom gets production from the top and bottom, but its 3-4-5 hitters go 1 for 12 with five strikeouts.

In many ways, Washington's 3-1 loss to San Diego on Monday night at Petco Park felt like a curious alignment of unlikelihoods. Yes, the Nationals fell for the fourth time in a row and the 86th time this year, but the usual outcome survived some serious challenges. San Diego made every necessary defensive play, including one that knocked its left fielder from the game. Liván Hernández pitched an eight-inning complete game. Washington's bats went cold against San Diego starter Tim Stauffer, who won for just the third time this season.

As a result, the Nationals fell to 14-15 in August, and missed a chance at their first winning month since September 2007.

"We're in one of those ruts," interim manager Jim Riggleman said, "but we've got to stop that.

Hernández's second outing with Washington got off to an inauspicious start, when four of the first five batters reached base, lifting San Diego to a 2-0 advantage. Sometimes, Hernández was hit hard. Sometimes, he was just unfortunate. Leadoff man Everth Cabrera dropped a bunt that left Hernández, who fielded the dribbler, looking at an uncovered first base. (Adam Dunn charged in; second baseman Pete Orr arrived at the bag too late.)

Then, David Eckstein squirted a hit down the right field line that careered into foul territory, skidded over the bullpen mound, and nearly caused Elijah Dukes to collide with bullpen catcher Nilson Robledo. Because of the confusion, the ball kicked by Dukes, giving Eckstein an RBI double.

When cleanup hitter Kevin Kouzmanoff blasted a double that one-hopped the center field wall, San Diego had another run and looked ready for a forceful night.

Hernández reversed that. Quickly. After a leadoff single in the second, the righty with the relaxed, rocking delivery retired 13 in a row. It looked like the Padres were swinging at shuttlecocks. Between the second and the fifth inning, Hernández allowed only one ball beyond the infield. He retired the side in the third on five pitches. Even when the Padres finally got a hit in the sixth -- an Adrian Gonzalez one-out single to right -- Hernández promptly forced Kouzmanoff into a 5-4-3 double play. Through six, he had thrown just 72 pitches.

"Right now, I feel good," Hernandez said. "Now I'm pitching really good. I come back and throw two really good games with the Nationals."

With San Diego's offense stifled, the Nationals simply needed to score a few runs against Stauffer, an objective most teams find quite feasible. Stauffer hadn't gone more than five innings in any of his previous five starts.

But this turned out to be a night for the unconventional.

The Nationals got some production from the weaker parts of their order -- soft singles from Hernández and Orr contributed to Washington's third-inning run -- but by the fourth, things seemed amiss: Only three Nationals hadn't reached base: Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham.

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