Livan Hernandez helps Washington Nationals start road trip the right way

Liván Hernández retires 17 of 18 batters at one point, yielding one run and five hits in 71/3 innings.
Liván Hernández retires 17 of 18 batters at one point, yielding one run and five hits in 71/3 innings. (Ross D. Franklin/associated Press)
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By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

PHOENIX -- Early Monday evening, inside the Washington Nationals' clubhouse, Liván Hernández took control for the first time. The starting pitcher, one of two players with a double-wide locker, Hernández chose the music. He pumped an Akon song, looked across the room at Nyjer Morgan and laughed. He played a Latin tune. The room was his.

Later Monday night, Hernández took control again. Anything he wanted to throw, he threw -- darting sinkers in the mid-80s, cartoon curves in the low 60s. He walked to the center of the diamond and ambled back into the dugout. He pitched nine innings, and it felt like he could have pitched 109. The mound was his.

In a 3-1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks before 16,793 at quiet Chase Field, Hernández came with five outs of becoming the first Nationals pitcher to ever throw two complete games in three starts. He had to settle for another mesmerizing performance, 7 1/3 innings of one-run, five-hit ball. While Iván Rodríguez reached a milestone and Adam Dunn added another home run, Hernández dazzled the Diamondbacks.

After Sean Burnett dominated during a five-out save, the second of his career, Hernández shared his secret: On Sunday night, after the Nationals arrived in Phoenix, Hernandez paced around his hotel room, drinking Coca-Cola and watching television, until 1:45 a.m. He didn't want to wake up too early to pitch the first game on a West Coast trip.

"I felt very good," Hernandez said. "I'm lucky I got up at 9:30 today. I'm very lucky. You can sometimes wake up at 5, 6 in the morning. I got lucky I woke up at 9:30. It was perfect. I go walk a little bit, eat lunch, come back to the hotel, and I felt very good in the bullpen."

On a team with a Hall of Fame catcher in winter and a phenom pitcher just starting out, a third baseman entering his prime and a first baseman slugging through his, Hernández is crafting a season as memorable as any of them. While dropping his ERA to 3.12 and winning his eighth game, Hernández retired 17 of 18 batters at one point, the only base runner an infield single off his foot.

Hernández had played with some of these Diamondbacks in 2007; on Sunday night catcher Miguel Montero called him and told Hernández he would hit a home run off of him. Like most of his teammates, he came up empty, hitting three flyballs against Hernández. "We were laughing during the game."

Hernández struck out five and walked one, the final batter he faced in the eighth inning. Hernández had cruised all game, throwing only 79 pitches in the first seven innings. After striking out Miguel Parra to lead off the eighth, Hernández ran into his first trouble of the night since consecutive singles in the second and an RBI groundball by Parra. He surrendered a pinch-hit single to Tony Abreu and walked Chris Young.

"I hated that last walk," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "For four pitches there, it got away from him a little bit. I was going to let him finish that inning, maybe finish the ballgame."

But with left-handed Kelly Johnson standing in the on-deck circle, Riggleman emerged from the dugout and the infielders crowded around Hernández. Riggleman called for left-hander Burnett, and second baseman Adam Kennedy slapped Hernández on the back with his glove, his night over after just 91 pitches. Considering he will throw 100 pitches in his bullpen session Wednesday, he could have stayed out there.

Riggleman, though, wanted Burnett to face the lefty, one of five in Arizona's starting lineup, and Burnett validated the decision. He struck out Johnson on a 3-2, 91-mph fastball on the inside corner. With Justin Upton, a power-hitting right-hander, at the plate, Riggleman stuck with Burnett.

With two left-handed batters behind Upton, Riggleman wanted Burnett in the game to start the ninth inning. And why not have him face Upton? Burnett entered allowing right-handed batters to hit .179 against him, a number that shot to .317 against lefties. He started Upton 3-0, but induced a grounder to shortstop on a fastball down the middle.

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