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Livan Hernandez's renaissance is key component in success of Nationals' pitching staff

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010; D01

Every so often, Liván Hernández rests on his couch and watches the Florida Marlins win the 1997 World Series, video of which he keeps at his home in Miami. It is one of the first -- and still the finest -- moments of Hernández's major league career. He likes to look at how much everyone has changed, especially the 22-year-old World Series MVP on the mound. "The face is skinnier," Hernández said. "It's a lot of difference."

Enough time had passed that this offseason, for the second straight year, no team offered Hernández a major league contract. One month into his 14th season, Hernández's sudden, dazzling renaissance has made him a central figure in the Nationals' early-season success and, for the moment, one of the best starting pitchers in the major leagues.

Spurned by the entire league this winter, Hernández has reestablished himself as a front-line starter while shepherding the Nationals' callow pitching rotation. After entering the year in shape from extra conditioning sessions, Hernández's 0.87 ERA after four starts ranks third in the majors.

"You're not surprised when he does anything, really," said Chicago Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild, Hernández's first pitching coach with the Marlins. "He's still a pitcher. He doesn't have quite the fastball he had, but he knows how to pitch. He has a knack to know what he needs to do, and doing it."

The days when Hernández threw 94 mph have long passed, but mastery has made his age irrelevant. This offseason, he took up racquetball as a means to improve his condition. When he came back to the Nationals, Hernández and pitching coach Steve McCatty honed the position of his arm in his delivery so that he could keep his sinking fastball low in the strike zone. He frustrates hitters with a barrage of sinkers low and away. When he senses a hitter expecting one more, he throws it to the inside corner or unfurls a looping curveball.

"Livo knows how to pitch for Livo," McCatty said. "That's the thing that he does so well. He's in a comfort zone and he doesn't get out of it. He doesn't let himself get beat on something that is not his strength. That's why he looks so confident out there and he always looks like he's in control."

Hernández's fastball this season, according to data collected by FanGraphs.com, has averaged 84.3 mph. Only Tim Wakefield and Jamie Moyer -- both of whom are fortysomethings, one of whom is a knuckleballer -- have thrown a slower fastball than Hernández. "Not one pitch overpowers anybody," starter Craig Stammen said.

And yet, according to FanGraphs's metrics, Hernández's heater has been the sixth most valuable in the sport -- more effective than Ubaldo Jiménez's, which averages 96.6 mph, fastest in the league among starting pitchers.

"I don't change too much -- I change being able to throw hard," Hernández said. "Now is more slow. I've tried to be more smart than before. You learn more and more and more. Every year, you find ways."

As spring neared, General Manager Mike Rizzo felt he needed insurance for his starting rotation. He wanted a pitcher who could throw 180 innings, "a guy at the bottom of the rotation, a reliable guy with a history," Rizzo said. More important, Hernández offered experience. Rizzo had seen the veteran right-hander embrace a mentor role during his brief stay with Washington last season, and he thought Hernández could provide lessons again.

After Stammen recorded only four outs in his second start of the year, Manager Jim Riggleman called both Stammen and Hernández into his office. He wanted Hernández to help. Hernández, echoing a message from McCatty, told Stammen to throttle back his pitches. In his next start, Stammen pitched eight scoreless innings.

"If you have a question, you can ask me anytime," Hernández said.

"For him and me, it's more of the off-the-field, how to handle everything, than it is the on-field stuff," starter Scott Olsen said. "The stuff behind the scenes that people don't see, that's the stuff that I take from him. He brings a good vibe, brings good energy in here. He keeps everybody with a smile on their face, just like him."

Hernández has played for seven teams, eight counting the Montreal Expos, but he identifies himself as a National. In 2005, Hernández threw the first pitch in Nationals history -- "one of my best moments in baseball," he said. He enjoys living in the city. "We'll see what happens when I retire," said Hernández, who owns 159 regular season victories. "Maybe I'll be working for the Nationals."

It won't happen soon. Hernández wants to pitch four more seasons, which would take him through age 39. He never imagined this career when he was skinny, 22 and pitching the Marlins to the World Series. "We don't got too many dreams in Cuba," he said. Hernández remembers his first day with the Marlins, when the number of shoes at his locker amazed him and he tried to wear his uniform home, believing he had to clean it himself.

He could not believe how great it was, playing in the big leagues. More than a decade later, Hernández is proving his time isn't over yet.

"I've got too many years left," Hernández said. "Everything is going the way I want it. I feel really happy with myself."

Staff writer Mark Viera contributed to this report from Chicago.

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