Matchup between Nationals' Livan Hernandez and Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez will start day-night doubleheader

The Nationals' Nyjer Morgan goes skyward to rob the Phillies' Ryan Howard of a hit in the seventh inning of Washington's 14-7 loss.
The Nationals' Nyjer Morgan goes skyward to rob the Phillies' Ryan Howard of a hit in the seventh inning of Washington's 14-7 loss. (Matt Slocum/associated Press)
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By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 15, 2010

DENVER -- On Saturday, in the first game of their doubleheader against the Colorado Rockies, a 35-year-old pitcher who throws his fastball 84.5 mph will try to claim the league's lowest ERA and keep the Washington Nationals atop the National League wild-card standings. Yeah, that sounds about right.

The Nationals' season already has been pretty remarkable, and the most enchanting moment yet may come Saturday afternoon. On Friday night, rain postponed the Nationals' game against the Colorado Rockies, and the teams will play two Saturday, at 2:10 p.m. and 8:10 p.m. The pitching matchups will remain the same: Liván Hernández against Ubaldo Jiménez -- the NL's ERA leader -- in the first game, Luis Atilano against Jason Hammel in the nightcap.

If the Nationals win the first game, they'll just need to hold on for 126 more games to make the playoffs. If they win, there's a good chance Hernández (4-1) will hold the best ERA in baseball. They are only 1 1/2 games behind NL East-leading Philadelphia, which beat Milwaukee on Friday night.

Hernández and his mystifying sinker -- a fastball faster than only Jamie Moyer's and Tim Wakefield's -- will try to topple Jiménez (6-1), whose average 96.8-mph fastball is the fastest in the majors. Jiménez enters with a 0.93 ERA, the only ERA lower than Hernández's 1.04. If the Nationals can get to him -- which they couldn't in a 2-0 loss for Hernández on April 22 -- and Hernández can shut down the Rockies, then Hernández will overtake him.

Hernández besting Jiménez would give the Nationals a pitching triple crown of sorts -- Hernández the best ERA, Tyler Clippard the most wins (seven), Matt Capps the most saves (14).

A victory's big-picture meaning would add to this year's turnaround, the magnitude of which is staggering. If they win the first game Saturday, the Nationals will be six games above .500. Ryan Zimmerman was called up Sept. 1, 2005, and since he has spent precisely one day playing for a team six games over .500.

The Nationals have yet to add Stephen Strasburg, who will give them a Jiménez of their very own, or Drew Storen, who could give Clippard and Capps the support they need. General Manager Mike Rizzo said Storen likely will be called up first. Strasburg's debut is likely to come between June 4 and June 10, but Rizzo, coy throughout, said he has yet to make a final decision.

"There's a window there that I have decided on, but there is so many variables still," Rizzo said. "I can't even pinpoint to the point where I can tell people who really need to know."

Until Thursday night, when they scored a season-high 14 runs, the Nationals' offense really hadn't broken out. And they're still hanging near the top of a league that, with more than a fifth of the season completed, remains wide open. According to odds determined by Baseball Prospectus's respected PECOTA formula, the Nationals own a 23 percent chance to make the playoffs -- better, at the moment, than the Boston Red Sox.

"The fact that our record is what it is, I think we've spent probably 28 or 30 of those games not really clicking yet, but staying competitive," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "Where we are, with our record, without having really played our best baseball yet, that's pleasing."

Friday's rainout provides the Nationals an opportunity to briefly rest their bullpen in the midst of a grueling stretch. The Nationals are playing 20 games in 20 days, four of them at offense-friendly Coors Field. Nationals relievers have already thrown 123 innings, third-most in the majors. "The one thing you look for is maybe a little rest for your bullpen," Riggleman said.

A pair of position players also will use the night off to mend. Catcher Iván Rodríguez and left fielder Josh Willingham were both out of Friday's lineup. Rodríguez's lower back, which has bothered him most of the season, felt "a little tender" during Thursday's cold, rainy game. Willingham tweaked his groin running to first base Thursday night. "Hopefully better tomorrow," Willingham said. "Just a pain in the butt."

Riggleman expects both players will play one game in Saturday's doubleheader.

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