By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Livan Hernandez was young once, like his current Washington Nationals rotation-mates, except when he was young, he was on magazine covers. He was hoisting hardware. At 22, Hernandez was most valuable player of both the Nationals League Championship Series and the World Series for the Florida Marlins. At 23, he was an Opening Day starter. At 25, he was a 17-game winner.
But now Hernandez is 34, a veteran of 13 big league seasons and 2,700 big league innings, and both his age and mileage work against him. A former Cuban defector, he has made more than $50 million in this game, but he doesn't have a job lined up for next season. If he's human, he worries he might not find one.
The Livan Hernandez offseason sales pitch -- "dependable innings-eater," "steadying veteran presence," "inexpensive, low-risk signing" -- will certainly not include any mention of what transpired Tuesday night at Nationals Park, when Hernandez absorbed a vicious beating at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers and departed in the fourth inning of an eventual 14-2 Nationals loss.
Loss No. 99 of this Nationals season, then, was No. 1 in terms of margin of defeat, and perhaps in terms of sheer horror as well. The Nationals made three errors and several other groan-inducing mental mistakes, getting themselves collectively booed a couple of times by an announced crowd of 18,518.
"It was one of those days," said center fielder Willie Harris, "when not much goes right, and it was embarrassing. . . . We played well for three or four innings, and then the wheels fell off."
By the end, Hernandez seemed the least of the Nationals' worries, but that doesn't mean his gruesome loss was immaterial.
The Nationals have made known their desire to acquire a couple of veteran starting pitchers this winter, and Hernandez has made known his desire to remain in Washington, where he christened RFK Stadium one April night in 2005. The Nationals, though, know full well that part of the bargain with Hernandez includes enduring a night or two of Bad Livan for every few nights of Good Livan. Tuesday night was quite definitively the former.
When the fourth inning began, the Nationals were holding a 2-1 lead over the NL West leaders, constructed upon Adam Dunn's two-run homer off Dodgers starter Hiroki Kuroda and three innings of vintage Hernandez damage control. It ended, an eternity later, with seven Dodgers having crossed the plate, all of them charged to Hernandez.
"You pitch like that, with a lot at mistakes," Hernandez said, "there's no chance you can pitch at this level."
For the Nationals, the fourth-inning indignities included 11 Dodgers batters coming to the plate, two errors charged to their outfielders on throws that skipped away from infielders, and the sight of former teammate Ronnie Belliard -- known for hitting productively when he felt like it, and running hard never -- hustling to take an extra base on one of the Nationals' errors.
Apparently, in the parallel universe Belliard entered after being traded from Washington to Los Angeles on Aug. 30, he starts ahead of two-time all-star Orlando Hudson in the Dodgers' lineup and gets praised for doing the little things necessary to win.
If only the violence had ended with Hernandez's slow stroll from the mound in the fourth, the Nationals might have escaped with just another garden-variety loss on the march into triple digits. Instead, the mistakes piled up -- Harris getting caught in a rundown off third base, booted grounders by rookie second baseman Ian Desmond -- and the soft middle of their bullpen performed a spot-on Bad Livan impression.
By the seventh, as the Dodgers were batting around again and putting up a six-spot against Nationals relievers Saul Rivera and Victor Garate, Dodgers Manager Joe Torre was pinch-hitting for slugger Manny Ramirez with the bases loaded -- despite the fact Ramirez owns more career grand slams (21) than anyone in history except Lou Gehrig (23).
It was a gracious gesture, kind and merciful. The Iron Horse can rest in peace, and in less than two weeks the Nationals' 2009 season can as well.