ATLANTA — The appeal of a large, round pitcher and the power of a large, round number turned the most basic act on a baseball diamond into something more significant Tuesday night.
In the second inning, pitching from the stretch on the Turner Field mound, Livan Hernandez threw Jair Jurrjens a 68-mph curveball, low and outside. Jurrjens grounded out to third. It was like any other pitch. And it wasn’t.
That pitch, in the middle of a 9-2, four-homer Washington Nationals thumping of the Atlanta Braves that ended Washington’s six-game losing steak, was the 50,000th of Hernandez’s career. Hernandez will be remembered among the pitchers of his era, not for his brilliance but because he kept throwing and throwing. Since they started tracking pitches in 1988, only 11 pitchers have thrown more. Only one, Tim Wakefield, the knuckleballer, is still pitching.
“It’s not easy,” Hernandez said. “I thank God every day he gives me a chance to throw with no problem throughout my career. It’s nice.”
When Hernandez is finished, he wants to be remembered as a National. He revealed Tuesday night that he has spoken to Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo about returning next season. He threw the first pitch in Washington after baseball returned and feels a deep connection to the franchise. He understands the young arms coming from the minor leagues may not leave room for him in the rotation. And so he would be willing to take a new role out of the bullpen.
“I’d love to stay here and pitch,” Hernandez said. “I know a lot of young guys are coming up. I can be a long reliever next year, I think. We’ve talked a little bit. We’ll see what happens. Hopefully something good.”
Last year, about this time, Hernandez walked up to Rizzo in a hotel lobby, handed Rizzo a note with “$1 million” scrawled on it and said, “I play for this.” Hernandez threw his first pitch as a skinny 21-year-old who had recently defected from Cuba. After making $50,000,000 throwing those 50,000 pitches, he has not forgotten that.
“It’s not about money,” Hernandez said. “I lived before with no money. It’s about where you feel comfortable. I’ve seen a lot things. In ’05, Zim, he was a rookie that year. I’ve seen a lot of things in the past. You want to be a part of something that’s really nice.”
Hernandez has toggled this season between excellent and awful, and Tuesday he veered toward the former. He allowed the Braves two runs and five hits in seven innings, throwing 105 pitches. (He finished the night with 50,071 in his career, 85 less than Wakefield.) He received support from home runs by Michael Morse, Ryan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa and Laynce Nix.
When Hernandez arrived at Turner Field, he had said he had no idea he needed 34 pitches to reach 50,000. Clubhouse manager Mike Wallace told him, and word spread to the bullpen. The relievers told Hernandez he better throw one of his trademark lopping, late-breaking curves for 50,000.
When Jurrjens came to the plate, Hernandez knew he was four pitches away. In the fourth pitch of the at-bat, he threw the curve. “I got to,” he said. After the groundout, first baseman Chris Marrero, 13 years Hernandez’s junior, handed him the ball.
“I told the young guys, you get here and you try to stay here. It’s easy to make it. But it’s not easy to be consistent every five days.”
Hernandez also hit a double in the fifth inning off Jurrjens, against whom he is 4 for 7 in his career. The pace of Hernandez’s jaunt to second would have protracted the wait in a senior citizen movie ticket line.
“I think I made it [to] second base in 18 seconds,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez ambled to third base when Ian Desmond singled, which is where he stood when Zimmerman blasted a deep fly ball to right-center field. Third base coach Bo Porter told Hernandez, “Tag up.”
“No,” Hernandez replied. “I’m just gonna jog home.”
When Zimmerman’s drive landed two rows deep, Porter could only shake his head and laugh.
“I’m a pitcher,” Hernandez said. “So I know when the ball is a home run.”
On Monday, the Nationals’ off day, Hernandez played golf with six teammates and Manager Davey Johnson. He swung way past parallel, out-drove everyone and carded the best score. He showed up Tuesday without any idea that the Braves had not played in three days because of Hurricane Irene.
“When I get out of the stadium, it’s difficult watching baseball,” Hernandez said. “I watch MTV.”
He cares deeply about the game when he walks into the stadium. His milestone offered another reminder that hundreds of pitchers better than him will come along, but none quite like him. Hernandez, 36, persists with his mid-80s fastballs and cartoon curveballs.
“Hitting, pitching, everything,” Zimmerman said. “He kept them off balance. He can go in, go out. That’s him. You can’t survive in this league as long as he has without being able to do that stuff.”
Hernandez, simply, will take the ball and soak up innings. Over the past five seasons, 98 pitchers who have thrown at least 500 innings have a better ERA than Hernandez’s 4.84 during that span. But only 14 have thrown more than his 9492 / 3 innings.
“His confidence in his stuff, it’s been a joy for me to watch him this year,” Nix said. “I’m really glad I’ve got to spend a year with him and get a real appreciation for what he does, in every facet of the game. He’s a confident player.”
Hernandez walked out of the clubhouse late Tuesday night, a designer leather bag slung over a red T-shirt with the word “REBEL” spelled out in black, speckled with faux jewels. He had hopes for next season, but he did not know what they held. He knew only what he has always known. Five days, he will take the tall and throw more pitches.