Hernandez did not necessarily pitch all that well in the Nationals’ 8-4 walk-off victory over the Phillies, but he provided an remarkable and crucial bullpen-saving boost by again showing what a a wholly unique baseball creature he is.
He did not allow a hit in three of the four innings he pitched, but the Phillies smacked seven hits off him to score four runs in the third inning. Just the mere fact that Hernandez pitched, though, made his night remarkable. Phillies scheduled starter Roy Oswalt bailed on a start he warmed up for after the long rain delay, the option any other major league starter would have taken – any other major league start except one.
“I don’t want to try to be a hero,” Hernandez said. “I feel proud, too. You find somebody who’ll stop for two hours and a half, you call me.”
Manager Davey Johnson did not think you could find anyone who did what Hernandez did Friday night. Hernandez threw his first pitch at 7:06 p.m. Black clouds swirled overhead, lightning split the sky and thunder crashed. After one shock of lightning, Hernandez stepped off the mound, looked up in the sky and flailed his arms.
At 7:11 p.m., the skies emptied as if a showerhead had been turned on and set to full blast. Umpires stopped the game five minutes after it began, with two outs in the first inning and a 1-1 count on Ryan Howard.
Hernandez had once before waited about an hour and 45 minutes, and he didn’t know how long he would have to wait. In 15-minute intervals, he went to the batting cage in the tunnel behind the Nationals’ dugout and threw 30 to 40 warm-up pitches – this, remember, was on top of the customary 85 he had thrown before the game. Pitching coach Steve McCatty was concerned, but he also knew Livo.
“It’s really tough, but more important I feel really good,” Hernandez said. “If I don’t feel good I’m going to tell Cat and Johnson I don’t feel good. I go over there and, because I’m warming up in the cage every 15 minutes. Cat is a little like, ‘Oh, are you sure?’ I said, ‘I never lie in baseball.’ When I feel out of gas, I tell them I feel out of gas. Today I feel really good.”
“I throw in the cage, and I see the ball is running really good,” Hernandez said. “I don’t feel tired, nothing. And the ball comes out of my hand really nice. I say, I don’t feel bad. I feel really good. I go in and come back and continue throwing because it’s going good.”
McCatty remained worried – he presumably had never asked a pitcher to take 2 hours, 22 off and then take the ball again. But Hernandez did, and he knew he could.
“Cat is a little worried,” Hernandez said. “I’m throwing long toss before I go on the mound and he still asked me. I said, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it. I feel good. I lie to my mom, but I’m never going to lie to you.’ That was a good one! And we started laughing. I said ‘I lied to my mom before but I never lied to you ever in three years.’ He started laughing and I got to the mound and that’s it.”
By the time the game was set to restart, Hernandez had thrown about 300 warm-up pitches. And still, he felt he needed a few more. As he tossed Cora, the Nationals ran on to the field, earlier than he had anticipated.
“I say, ‘Oh my God. I’ve got to throw like 30 pitches,’ ” Hernandez said. “I rush and throw and throw and throw. That was a tough one because the team was not supposed to go on the field. I see everyone going to the field and I said, ‘Oh my God, no way.’ ”
The game resumed with Howard batting. Hernandez threw his first pitch – a curveball that registered on the stadium radar gun at 60 miles per hour.
Hernandez ended up walking Howard, but he escaped the first and then retired the Phillies in order in the second. He had allowed no earned against the Phillies last week, and he seemed primed to humble them again.
His night deteriorated, quickly and decisively, in the third. With one out, the Phillies stung five consecutive hits, the first three for extra bases. The inning ended only after Jayson Werth fielded a single by Wilson Valdez and gunned down Raul Ibanez at the plate.
The pitcher’s spot was coming up the next inning, but Hernandez still wanted to keep pitching.
“Johnson told me I’m done,” Hernandez said. “And I said, ‘Hey, let me go back because I feel really good.’ We talk and we’ve got good communication. He’s a good baseball guy and I said, ‘Hey I’m never lying to you. I feel good and you give me a chance.’ ”
Johnson had two long relievers at his disposal, but when the pitcher’s spot came to bat in the bottom of the inning, he let Hernandez hit for himself. He dropped down a sacrifice bunt, then retired the side in the fourth on three consecutive groundballs. Finally, 59 pitches and more than four hours after his night began, Hernandez was finished.
“When he gave me the three outs, I said that’s a miracle,” Johnson said.
Hernandez has done some remarkable things with his right arm. On June 14, 1998, he threw 153 pitches in a game. Nine days later, he threw 152. But last night, he tough, may have been the toughest night of his career.
“I feel really good and I feel proud of what I do,” Hernandez said. “It’s four runs, I know that we’ve got a chance to lose the game but I did the best for the team.”
Hernandez hit the cold tub last night. And he wondered how he would feel the day after he did something no other pitcher would.
“Let’s see tomorrow how I feel,” Hernandez said. “I’m going to let you know tomorrow.”