Nationals Need to Keep Pitcher Livan Hernandez

By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, September 6, 2009

Don't give up on Liván Hernández. Baseball almost has. But the Nationals shouldn't. Sometimes, the bargain, the steal, a key piece, is hiding in plain sight. That's probably Liván right now. He's dragging a 5.26 ERA behind him, as well as a pink slip from the Mets last month. The phone didn't ring after he was released until the Nats called. The message was clear: Hello, scrap heap.

But large Liván isn't ready to be junked for parts. It's far more likely that his next few seasons will resemble his last several -- 13-13, 11-11 and then 13-11 last year with 200 innings per year. Hernández, 34, is exactly the type of durable pitcher the Nats need to fill out their rotation and use his experience as a big-game star in nine postseason series to teach young pitchers.

"I want to pitch for six more years," said Hernández, whose knee is now healed after bothering him for two years. "I lose a lot of pounds. This winter, I am going to lose a lot more. This is the first year I feel 100 percent. Next year, come back to the old level."

Maybe. Ironically, GM Mike Rizzo, interim manager Jim Riggleman and assistant GM Bob Boone all compare Hernández to another graceful bear of a pitcher -- Rick Reuschel. But none seem to have looked up his record. At 34, Reuschel was washed up -- 20-25 the previous four years, not even close to Livo's production. Then he got healthy, found a craftier version of his old self and had years like 14-8, 13-9, 19-11 and finally 17-8 at 40.

Can Livo? Unlikely. But it's more probable that a man who has been MVP of the World Series will have a fine old age than it is to fantasize about some of the Class AAA retreads the Nats still use.

Will the Nats recognize what's standing on their mound? They may not because, in about every third start, Hernández has a truly ugly game. This year, in eight of 25 starts, he averaged 4 2/3 innings, nine hits and six earned runs. A gruesome 12.75 ERA. Right on schedule, he had just such a game for the Nationals on Saturday night. He allowed six runs on eight hits in five innings to bring his ERA with the Nats to 5.21.

"When I get hit hard, it's hard," Hernández said.

But in the other 17 starts, he's been brilliant with a 2.87 ERA, a 7-3 record and 14 quality starts. In fact, except for John Lannan (16 of 28), Hernández has a far better rate of quality starts (56 percent this year, 54 percent career) than the rest of the Nats' staff, which is at an ugly 32 percent. The MLB norm is 49 percent.

Also, when Hernández is sharp, he goes far deeper into games than any current Nats pitcher. He has nine starts in this supposedly bad year when he's gone seven-to-nine innings, with a 2.25 ERA in those games. Save the bullpen? It doesn't even have to warm up. The Nats young starters, Lannan aside, can't provide that. They have gone seven innings only seven times in 78 starts. As for durability, Craig Stammen is the latest Nat to need surgery, joining Jordan Zimmermann and Scott Olsen. Rubber arms are rare.

"I've never missed a start in my career. Guys say, 'My stomach hurts today.' My stomach can hurt, too," Hernández said. "I never go do that. In baseball, I like to see people fighting."

If Hernández breezes through his last six starts, the Nats will have an easy decision. When he pitches as he did in his first two games back as a Nat (3.21 ERA, two quality starts, one complete game), everybody loves Liván. But it's far more likely he will get shelled a couple of times. Will the Nats be wise enough to see beyond that? It's hard. Last month, 29 teams didn't want him.

Few pitchers are as misunderstood as the Hernández of the past four years. Baseball lives by stats. And the sport can't get over a 44-44 pitcher who averages 200 innings year, yet has a gross 5.26 ERA -- a full run higher than an "average" pitcher with a .500 record should have. (The NL ERA in '09 is 4.23.) It doesn't go together. So, it must be a fluke. If Liván stumbles, it's "he's done."

Because he's a glorious, guileful slop-baller, Hernández has an almost invisibly thin margin of error for his late-moving mid-80s fastball and a slow curveball that may not reach 60 mph. Maybe his usual fastball-in-a-teacup command is off or the other team has good opposite-field slap hitters. Maybe the ump has a tight strike zone or the wind is blowing out. Maybe, as he battles to get out of his many jams, the gods aren't with him and a big inning erupts.

But in two-thirds of his starts, he still ties other teams in knots. And he's a joy to watch.

"Something more important than baseball [ability] is your mind," said Hernández at his No. 61 locker on Friday. "You can do nothing with the past. But something that is coming toward you, the future, don't let it pass. It's in your hands. Have a strong mind. Act like nothing bothers you. Remember, the hitter is watching you. You have to play with the mind of the hitter, every game, be ready with your plan."

It's not going to hurt Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, Zimmermann, Lannan, Ross Detweiler or Garrett Mock to sit next to this guy -- on a plane, in a dugout, in a hotel or at dinner.

In his two spring trainings with the Nats in 2005 and '06, every other pitcher worked on building arm strength, usually as fast as possible. Hernández, day after day, worked on nothing but mechanics and control. The catcher could put his glove on the low outside corner and Liván might hit it a dozen straight times.

"Liván is one of the few pitchers who really can hit the corner, then move the ball an inch or two further outside at will," said Riggleman.

"It's all about mechanics, just like golf," Hernández said. "It's not how hard you throw. Pitching is like real estate -- location, location, location."

If Hernández has a secret, it is his understanding that singles seldom hurt, but home runs kill. And to a pitcher with command, only mistakes in location will ever go out of the park.

"You don't want the hitter in good balance. Destroy timing," Hernández said. "But mistakes, you must avoid mistakes, that is a big thing. At this level you pay for it."

The Nats have more needs than finding an 11-11 veteran who can go close to 200 innings, teach the kids and, if everybody gets lucky, turn into a Reuschel. But, unlike those other pieces of the winning-team puzzle, Hernández is right there before our eyes, a former World Series MVP who laughs with fans when he's on deck, then hits a line drive. Livo pitched the first game back in D.C. and always wanted to inaugurate Nationals Park. Who knows why he loves it here? Maybe, to a man who fled Cuba at 21, the monuments mean more.

The Nats need to see this opportunity clearly. As long as Hernández's arm is fit, they are nowhere close to a rotation with five men better than he is. Before closing day, Livo will get crushed. Maybe more than once. He'll look washed up. He isn't. Sign him.

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