Nationals 4, Marlins 2
Under the blazing south Florida sun, Livan Hernandez toiled, his face glistening, his gray jersey drenched with sweat. In the game when the Nationals needed him at his best, their best pitcher was pulling out every trick he had against the Florida Marlins.
In came the 84-mph fastball and the looping 60-mph curve that seemed to hang for minutes in the sticky air. He stopped a squeeze play, firing a fastball above the head of Marlins pitcher Brian Moehler, leaving base runner Alex Gonzalez trapped and helpless halfway between third base and home plate.
And when the team that can't hit desperately needed something to roll into the Dolphins Stadium outfield, it was Hernandez who dribbled what would become the deciding hit into right field during this 4-2 victory.
Thus it was their ace who saved them, ending the six-game losing streak.
Afterward, he stood in front of his locker underneath a throbbing speaker and said: "I want to win every time. I try to win -- you want to end the losing streak."
All around, as the players laughed and shouted and watched Manny Ramirez on a clubhouse television the size of a small scoreboard, the Nationals began speaking in double-superlatives.
"That was huge today," catcher Gary Bennett said of Hernandez's performance. "Huge. Huge."
"How big was it?" Manager Frank Robinson asked. "Big. Big."
First place had long disappeared, the wild-card lead left two nights before. Another loss and Washington might have given up any hope of straightening out a season suddenly slipping away.
But the Nationals had Hernandez, and with Hernandez they have a chance. After all, he had stopped the Braves earlier in the week before Chad Cordero blew the save in the ninth. This time, he fought his way through the Marlins lineup, giving up enough hits to get into trouble but throwing enough fastballs on the outside corner to get himself out of the predicaments. Which meant it was a typical Hernandez game.
In the second, with the Marlins already up 1-0, he saw Gonzalez on third with the pitcher Moehler up and called for Bennett to come to the mound. Together they smelled squeeze.
"Make sure you cover the bunt," Bennett said to the pitcher.
"If it's a squeeze, I'm going to throw the pitch high," Hernandez replied.
Gonzalez started running for the plate. Hernandez saw him from the corner of his eye. "I threw it high, high," he said. That was the end of the squeeze.
Meantime, the Nationals managed to score a run in the third on a Nick Johnson double and another in the fifth when Carlos Baerga singled home Jose Guillen to give Washington a 2-1 lead. Then with Baerga on third and Bennett on second, Florida Manager Jack McKeon intentionally walked the .180-hitting Cristian Guzman to load the bases for Hernandez.
Later, McKeon said that you always walk position players and pitch to pitchers -- even position players named Guzman with two hits in his previous 20 at-bats. It was a decision McKeon paid dearly for when Hernandez singled to bring home Baerga.
"I just want to make contact," Hernandez said. Moehler "threw me a fastball down the middle and I made contact [fouling it off] and then he threw me a fastball again. I'll take it."
After watching Hernandez take the pitch into right field, McKeon shook his head. "We gave him a fastball," he said. "Whenever our pitchers get up they get curveballs."
Yes, this was Hernandez's day. On and on under the sun he toiled on his way to his 13th victory of the season. His pitch count soared, rising past 110, 120. But he kept getting people out. At the end of the seventh, he struck out Miguel Cabrera and walked toward the dugout wagging his index finger.
"One more inning," he kept saying. Robinson, never one to question Hernandez's heart, agreed. One more inning. Three outs later, Hernandez's day was over, after 145 pitches. Cordero came in to finish the job he didn't do five days before. Finally they had won a game.