Standing on third base, Laynce Nix had no clue Hernandez was going to bunt. But for Hernandez, the situation was too perfect to pass up, even though he knew he had his problems bunting last season.
“Last year, I had a difficult time,” Hernandez said. “I missed five bunts in a row. That never happened to me in my career. I feel so bad. I told everybody, ‘I’m trying, I’m trying.’ ”
When he saw Howard playing back, none of that mattered. He knew Joe Blanton’s first pitch would be good to bunt. “I know it won’t be a breaking ball, because the bases are loaded,” Hernandez said. “It’s going to be a fastball in the middle with the bases loaded. He threw me a cutter.”
Standing on third base, “I didn’t know,” Nix said. “I just reacted.” As he bolted, Blanton scurried off the mound and scooped the ball, taking a glance at home plate, looking like he might try for the force.
“I thought he was going to,” Nix said.
Said Hernandez: “I thought the guy was going to throw to home plate when I started running. I said, ‘Uh, oh.’ ”
But Blanton turned away and threw to first, taking the second out of the inning and letting the Nationals take a 4-1 lead. Afterward, Hernandez actually apologized to Nix.
“I said sorry to Nix because I do it on my own, and it surprised a lot of people,” Hernandez said.
Said Nix: “It was a great bunt by him. He put that in a good spot where they couldn’t get it quick enough to get me. Fortunately, I made a good break on it.”
Hernandez’s night, of course, included more than just the Nationals’ third successful squeeze bunt in 10 games. He allowed one run – an opposite-field Ryan Howard home run – in 6 2/3 innings on seven hits and no walks with seven strikeouts. After he retired 18 of the first 22 batters he faced, his biggest strikeout came in his final at-bat.
The Phillies loaded the bases with one out in the seventh, sending the go-ahead run to the plate in the form of left-handed pinch-hitter John Mayberry, who Hernandez had never faced before. With the wind blowing out to left, Hernandez did not want to give Mayberry he could drive. So he relied on a pitch no one else throws, that curveball that wouldn’t get a speeding ticket.
But like he needed Nix for the bunt to work, he needed catcher Wilson Ramos for the curveballs to work. He got Mayberry in an 0-2 count by throwing him a 64-mph curveball that he swung at – lurched at, more accurately – and missed by a foot. After two fouls, Hernandez tried another curveball. If it snuck by Ramos, it would have scored a run, removed a force out and sent the tying to scoring position.
“It’s difficult, because it’s slow sometimes the catcher is going forward,” Hernandez said. “The 61 miles per hour, you don’t see that too many times. I know we’ve got a good catcher. I told him in the meeting before the game – Ramos, that was first time he catch me this year. He don’t catch me in spring training, either. I told him before the game, that is the pitch I’m going to use for a strikeout. You got to be careful, it’s so slow.”
Hernandez’s 0-2 curve, 62 miles per hour, skidded in the dirt. Ramos scooted to his right, stayed back and blocked it. It was a pretty easy play to forget, just another pitch that did not even get put in play. But the rookie catcher actually had made a potentially pivotal play.
“That was huge,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “Both of our catchers are really good at blocking balls. It’s huge.”
With the bases still loaded, Hernandez threw yet another slow curve, his third in six pitches. Mayberry swung through this one, too, whiffing at a pitch moving 61 miles per hour. Hernandez had escaped his final jam and, once Tyler Clippard came on to strike out Shane Victorino swinging at a fastball, Hernandez had sewn up his first win. He was excellent, but he had help when he needed it.
FROM THE POST
Jayson Werth lifted the Nationals to a 7-4 victory over his former team as the Nationals overcame the loss of three regulars.
Charlie Manuel is not counting his chickens yet, Dave Sheinin writes.
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse was postponed against Pawtucket.
New Britain 3, Harrisburg 1 (Game 1): Henry Rodriguez allowed one hit and stuck out two in one scoreless inning. In four innings on his rehab assignment, Rodriguez has allowed no runs and struck out seven.
New Britain 8, Harrisburg 2 (Game 2):2010 Nats minor league player of the year Tyler Moore went 0 for 3 with three strikeouts, lowering his average to .105. Josh Johnson went 1 for 1 with two walks.
Potomac was postponed against Winston-Salem.
Hagerstown 5, Lexington 1:Bryce Harper went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts. Adrian Sanchez went 2 for 4 with three RBI. Taylor Jordan allowed no runs in five innings on two hits and a walk with five strikeouts.