By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010; 1:39 AM
SAN FRANCISCO -- Liván Hernández has lost 154 times in his singular career, more than all but two active pitchers, and none of them felt quite like Tuesday night's. "Stupid" is how he described it. Hernández dominated his old team for 4 2/3 innings. He put two strikes on the opposing pitcher. And then it fell apart.
The Washington Nationals had come to expect from Hernández more than they could have hoped for. In late February, he signed a minor league contract. Now, "we'd be in trouble without him," Manager Jim Riggleman said. And Tuesday night Hernández was cruising again, confounding batters, baffling statheads, piling up zeros.
In an instant, Hernández's magic evaporated and another gem unraveled. The San Francisco Giants scored all of their runs with a blink-and-you-missed-it flurry in a 4-2 victory before 27,981 at A&T Park, knocking Hernández out of the game with a furious fifth inning. The Nationals, unable to muster much offense against Todd Wellemeyer, the most hittable pitcher they'll see during their stay here, dropped their first game of a 10-game road trip and fell back to .500 on the season.
"I can't believe I lose the game," Hernández said. "It's unbelievable. I can't say nothing."
Hernández entered as the unquestioned ace of the Nationals staff, owner of a 1.62 ERA. He suffocated the Giants for the first four innings -- his looping curveballs and surgical sinkers granting him utter command of the game. As Bengie Molina led off the fifth, Hernández stepped off the mound, looked to right field and motioned Roger Bernadina to take a couple steps backward. Molina flied to right, and Bernadina, after only a few steps, made the catch.
With two outs in the fifth, Hernández put two strikes on Wellemeyer. One more pitch against a pitcher who entered 1 for 13 at the plate this season, and the Nationals could move on, still tied 0-0. Hernández threw Wellemeyer an 0-2, outside slider. Wellemeyer "threw the bat," catcher Wil Nieves said, and dumped a single down the line in right field.
The trickle of offense -- the Giants third hit all game -- turned into a deluge. Andres Torres and Edgar Rentería both singled. Freddy Sanchez and Pablo Sandoval both ripped doubles, Sandoval's shot off the left-center wall scoring two. Aubrey Huff lined out to short, and Hernández would not throw another pitch. He walked off the field with a new ERA of 2.08.
"It's unbelievable," Nieves said. "Usually, that doesn't happen to Livo. They score a couple runs, and he stops them."
For the fourth straight start, Hernández faced one of his former teams. He had been showing the entire league what they missed, and he especially savored proving his old teams wrong. "I could see he wanted this one," reliever Tyler Walker said. "I'm sure it hurts him."
Statistical harbingers suggested Hernández may have been headed toward a downswing. Before Hernández's last start, FanGraphs.com, a leading analytical Web site, considered how few strikeouts Hernández recorded and how many balls in play turned into outs, especially with runners on base. The site concluded Hernández had stumbled upon "one of the luckiest runs in the history of major league baseball."
The Nationals responded in the seventh. Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham started the inning with consecutive singles, Willingham's liner to left scoring Zimmerman. With one out, Ian Desmond laced a deep fly ball to center, scoring Dunn easily. They Nats had knocked out Wellemeyer and reduced their deficit to 4-2.
They kept it a game when their bullpen escaped a jam. Tyler Walker, working his second inning, put runners on second and third with one out. Walker pounded breaking balls down and away against Freddy Sanchez, who fouled off seven straight. Walker tried another slider, and finally Sanchez swung over one for strike three.
Walker intentionally walked Pablo Sandoval to load the bases for Aubrey Huff, then yielded to Sean Burnett. Burnett entered with 6 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. Huff clobbered a ball to left field, where Josh Willingham made a running catch to save Burnett and end the inning.
But the Nationals, even their formidable heart of the lineup batting in the ninth, could not manage another base runner. Things will become more difficult for their offense, which has scored 3.5 runs per game in the Nationals' last 11. They'll face reigning Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum and resurgent, former Cy Young winner Barry Zito in the final two games.
Until the series ends and he gets to pitch again, the way he lost will eat at Hernández. He doesn't get frustrated when a team simply beats him, he said. Tuesday night brought plenty of frustration.
"They just got him," Riggleman said. "They got Livo."