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Hernandez, Willingham lift Nats over Mets

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Washington Post staff writer
Monday, April 12, 2010

NEW YORK -- At about 10:45 Sunday morning, Liván Hernández ambled around the Washington Nationals' clubhouse, stopping for an embrace at every locker. Hernández received handshakes and hugs, carefree and smiling, like a man walking through a family reunion. When he returned to his stall, Mike Rizzo was there. The general manager extended his hand and said, "Welcome back."

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The Nationals needed a starting pitcher who would provide innings, and through the Citi Field door came the man who last decade threw 2,201, more than any other pitcher. The Nationals knew Hernández would give them durability. They may not have counted on dominance.

Hernández's seven shutout innings and Josh Willingham's five RBI, including four on a first-inning grand slam, lifted the Nationals to a 5-2 victory over Johan Santana and the New York Mets. Their first consecutive wins this season sent the Nationals' record to 3-3. The last time the Nationals finished a day .500 or better? April 5, 2008. In a year like this, when fourth place means progress, the mundane becomes a milestone.

"We're confident with the people that we have in here," Willingham said. "We're going to go out every day and compete hard and see what happens."

As Stephen Strasburg made his highly anticipated minor league debut in Altoona, Pa., Hernández, a pitcher on the other end of his career, made his own season debut before 33,672. He spent the afternoon slinging low-80s fastballs and loopy curves and teaching the Nationals staff a lesson in efficiency.

Before Sunday, no Nationals starter had recorded an out in the sixth inning. Hernández needed 88 pitches -- four more than Garrett Mock threw Friday in 3 1/3 innings -- to stifle the Mets for seven innings. Hernández allowed five hits and three walks, striking out only José Reyes, the final batter he faced. Same as always, Hernández relied more on guile than on overpowering pitches.

"I've got to pitch my game," Hernández said.

The Nationals activated Hernández on Sunday, a day after he flew into New York. While the Nationals played their first five games, Hernández stayed sharp. He pitched six innings in a minor league game last Monday. He worked out with his brother Orlando, the former major league pitcher, at home in Miami. He watched Nationals games on TV. (And did Hernández, a golf fiend, find time for a round? "Hell, yeah," he said. "Every day.")

Willingham provided Hernández more support than he needed. Nyjer Morgan tripled to lead off the game, and Willy Taveras and Adam Dunn followed with walks. With one out, Willingham launched Santana's 2-1 change-up to center field, a towering fly that sent Gary Matthews back to the warning track.

As Willingham sprinted around first, he noticed the ball had smacked the wall in center and bounded back into the outfield. Dunn flattened catcher Rod Barajas after the relay throw. The ball trickled away, and Willingham scampered home but was thrown out. The Nationals, it seemed, had taken a three-run lead.

Ryan Zimmerman, sidelined by a hamstring injury, rushed inside the clubhouse. He watched the replay and saw the ball land to the right of an orange line -- which meant it should have been a home run. He came back out and started twirling his hand and pointing to the wall.

The umpires confabbed, then left the field to look at Willingham's hit on a video monitor. They saw, clearly, that Willingham's ball had scraped the fence to the right of the orange demarcation in center. It was not a triple and an out. It was a grand slam.

"Nice little surprise," Willingham said.

Hernández told Manager Jim Riggleman he was done after seven -- "I don't want to be a hero the first day back," he said. The Nationals cruised, but not without incident. In the ninth, Francisco Rodriguez hit Willie Harris on the hands with a pitch. Harris yelled in pain. Rodriguez marched toward Harris, arms out and yelling at him. "Next thing I hear is him telling me, 'F you,' " Harris said. "So I tell him, 'F you' back."

In an instant, the Nationals streamed on the field from the bench and the bullpen. Players exchanged no fisticuffs before heading back to their places, but something important had been established.

"Everybody has got each other's back," Morgan said. "We're a family. Nobody is going to push us around. Basically, that's not going to happen here."

The Nationals left town ahead of the Mets in the standings. That may not matter much six games into the season. But for a team that hasn't been out of last place for more than two years, maybe it does.

"Anytime you win a ballgame, it feels better," Riggleman said. "It feels better getting on the bus to go to Philadelphia. It feels better going to the ballpark the next day. We'll just cherish it until we shower it off and get ready for the next one."



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