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Washington Nationals spring training: Livan Hernandez, 36, is in no rush to call it a career
Then, the Nats thought they were getting a 240-pound insurance policy who might never pitch an inning for them. Instead, they got an ace who pitched 211 innings with the 14th-best ERA in the NL (3.66). Horrid run support doomed Hernandez to a 10-12 record. But he allowed two runs or less in 20 starts, a huge ratio. Roy Halladay (21-10) only had 19 such games.
Plenty in baseball think Hernandez's season in '10 was a fluke at the end of a fading career. They see his opening day start as proof that the 93-loss Nats have made little progress since they came to D.C. in '05 with - yes, Livan - as their opening day pitcher. Some of us disagree - quite strongly.
"I want to be the Jamie Moyer of right-handers," says Hernandez. With Livo, never discount the utterly implausible. He has never missed a start in his career. Though he's lost 10 mph off his best heat since he was a rookie, he's still bamboozling the best with an average fastball of 84.3 mph - six mph slower than Stephen Strasburg's changeup. In Livo, craft meets guile.
Above all, Hernandez is baseball's emblem of pure joy in playing. In Atlanta last September, he moved from the on-deck circle to the railing to kibitz with fans at arm's length. "I hit this guy [Jair Jurrjens] real good," he told one Braves fan. "I'm going to hit a home run and give the bat to you."
A superb athlete disguised in a round body, Hernandez has a fine .222 career average. But he hadn't homered in four years. Yet he blasted a liner that skipped off the top of the left field fence and went over. "The guy was jumping, yelling, 'You did it!' " Livan said. "I said, 'Hold on one second, I'll get you the bat.' " And he did. Then shut out the Braves for eight innings.
With age, Hernandez has become an iconic figure to fellow players. If he can get so much out of so little, what's wrong with them?
"You've got to play with the game. You can't let the game play with you," Hernandez said. Somewhere, Satchel Paige is smiling.
Livan mixes playfulness and pride in a way ideally suited to baseball's everyday grind. "You get the baseball in your hand. You have to think: 'I can win. Nobody can beat me today.' If it doesn't happen . . ." Livan said, shrugging. Then next time, five days later, you think you're unbeatable again.
Perhaps because he learned the game in baseball-mad Cuba, perhaps because he's an independent thinker by nature, Hernandez has his own unique views on everything. "I hate when pitchers say, 'He hit a homer, but it was a good pitch.' No, that's a bad pitch. A good pitch the hitter misses or grounds into a double play," Livan said. "You must not throw what the hitter is looking for. Then even a curve in the dirt can be a bad pitch."
So, don't impose your theories on the game. Instead, watch each hitter, treat him as unique and be open so that the game can constantly teach you.
"You're not going to be strong by throwing less," he said. "Throw double what the others do." Hence, he may throw 100 pregame warmup pitches. Strasburg once stopped at 28. Between starts, Livan may throw 120 pitches until he masters his mechanics. The result is preternatural precision.
"Since Greg Maddux retired, Livan may be the most fun pitcher in baseball to watch, at least for me," Nats pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "We talk about what he's going to do, but even I can't guess what he'll throw next."