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Livan Hernandez: The Nationals’ valued batting practice pitcher

Livan Hernandez in 2010. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/Washington Post)

Before games, Livan Hernandez makes his way to the indoor batting cages and does something similar to what he did for 17 years in the big leagues: He pitches, just not on a major league mound. This offseason, the former Nationals starter retired and joined the organization as an ambassador/spring training coach/all-around good guy. Part of his duties when he is with the Nationals in Washington is to throw batting practice.

But it isn’t just any regular batting practice. Hernandez actually pitches. Although he is closer to the plate than a standard mound, Hernandez throws almost as if he was in a game. Unlike coaches or bullpen catchers throwing fastballs, Hernandez throws curveballs, sliders and change-ups, too. Sometimes hitters will ask to simulate an at-bat and counts. A hitter struggling with breaking pitches might ask Hernandez for help and he will throw only curveballs to them. Hernandez can even mimic the delivery and times of that day’s opposing starter.

“He can throw any kind of breaking ball, if guys want to work on that,” Manager Matt Williams said. “It’s an advantage because it doesn’t have to come out of a machine. You get a real live human being that is a pretty good with the ability to throw it for a strike. He’s been great.”

Hernandez, who last pitched in the big leagues in 2012, was blessed with a rubber arm that helped him survive nearly 3,200 innings in the majors. Despite that enormous workload, Hernandez is still willing and able to pitch to Nationals hitters. Earlier this week, he threw on-field batting practice to Wilson Ramos and Bryce Harper, only fastballs, and then threw to other players in the indoor batting cages.

“I love it,” he said. “If they left me there, I’d throw the entire day.”

Several Nationals players love having Hernandez pitch to them. Catcher Jose Lobaton said he turns often to Hernandez when he isn’t playing much because it allows him to see a live arm, a  human windup and live breaking balls. Players such as Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa also often ask Hernandez to pitch to them during batting practice when he is in Washington.

“He’s a big help,” Lobaton said. “We’re lucky to have someone like him. Our coaches throw before games and they throw fastballs. Before the game, that’s fine. But he can throw other stuff before the game.”

First baseman Adam LaRoche likes facing Hernandez before a game because he allows him to stay fresh with a live arm. On-field batting practice ends about an hour and a half to two hours before first pitch, a long time between seeing live pitching. LaRoche believes players’ first at-bats of games are wasted because their eyes are readjusting to a live arm. “It seems like the more at-bats you go in a game the more locked in you get, your eyes get better,” LaRoche said.

By facing Hernandez’s breaking balls rather than fastballs from a batting practice pitcher, LaRoche thinks he has a head start in the game. Hernandez’s ability to imitate the other team’s starter also helps.

“He’s awesome,” LaRoche said. “I’ll take regular BP but I love Livo because I can get a full at-bat. He’ll come out and watch that day’s pitcher and will mimic their windup or their times. Like, he’ll know if they’re real quick or a slide-step guy. He’ll mix up pitches.”

Hernandez asks players what pitches they want to see and how hard they want him to throw. He didn’t reach 90 mph often near the end of his career, but Hernandez still throw in the 80s, Lobaton said.

“If they like it, that’s the most important,” Hernandez said. “It helps them and it helps the offense. I throw so it looks like the pitcher and real pitching.”