Hernandez bewildered the Phillies for the first 62
3 innings of the Nationals’ 4-2 victory, yielding no earned runs and four hits, inducing a gaggle of weak outs and countless shaking heads on the walk back to the dugout. He threw no pitches faster than 86 mph and 12 slower than 70. He faced force with guile, and he won.
Hernandez enjoyed the fans’ banter as he warmed up. He heard their taunts as they hung over the seats in center, and he carried them into the game.
“It wakes up the lion,” Hernandez said. “They got to be more quiet out there.”
For kicks, Hernandez also drove in two runs with a pair of RBI singles. During pregame batting practice, after he hit a few balls over the fence, Hernandez told hitting coach Rick Eckstein, “Watch out.”
The Phillies have treated the Nationals more like props than competitors in recent seasons, beating them 54 times in their past 82 meetings. The Nationals, though, have now taken three consecutives games against the Phillies, the third time they’ve done that since baseball returned to Washington.
The reigning kings of the National League East were helpless Friday night against Hernandez, who in his last start, in Colorado, allowed nine runs and recorded 11 outs. Hernandez baffled the Phillies in his inimitable style, twirling curveballs filled with helium and throwing fastballs that would receive speeding tickets in some, but not all, states.
Hernandez threw 89 pitches. He fired precisely two of them faster than 85 mph. He struck out three Phillies, all on curveballs. The first two, whiffed on by new Phillies right fielder Hunter Pence, traveled at 69 and 67 mph. Wilson Valdez was Hernandez’s third victim. He flailed at a 63-mph curveball.
In his previous start, Hernandez’s curveball was useless in Denver’s high altitude. It broke either not at all or the wrong direction. “In Colorado,” Hernandez said, “the curveball don’t do nothing.” This week, Hernandez threw a side session in Chicago and assured himself he still had his same looping, late-breaking curve.
Hernandez felt confident with everything on Friday. He moved fielders around, anticipating where hitters would hit his pitches. Second baseman Danny Espinosa used the positioning to make three dazzling plays. “He saved two or three base hits,” Hernandez said.
The only trouble Hernandez found came in the second inning, when Espinosa booted a leadoff grounder from Ryan Howard. Raul Ibanez singled with one out, and Wilson Valdez lined a two-out single to center field, scoring Howard.
The run cut Hernandez’s lead to 2-1, but the Phillies would not threaten him again. He allowed no extra-base hits, and his only walk came to the final batter he faced in the seventh. After the second inning, the Phillies did not advance a runner past first base against Hernandez.
The Phillies threatened, of course, because they always do. After Tyler Clippard pitched a dominant 11
3 innings, Drew Storen entered for the save, and the hint of calamity unfolded. Shane Victorino singled off Storen, and Chase Utley shot one past Alex Cora — the Nationals’ backup to their backup first baseman.
Both, Manager Davey Johnson said, should have been outs. Instead, the Phillies, with their 4-5-6 hitters coming to the plate, would have three cracks to tie the game.
“You pretty much hit the restart button,” Storen said. “You have to take a step back and take a deep breath. You can’t let the mistakes compound. That’s a big difference between last year and this year. This year, I would have tried to fix those mistakes that were already made.”
Storen did not flinch. He struck out Howard swinging at a wicked, 84-mph slider. (“It had that Frisbee action,” Storen said.) Pence flied to right, scoring Victorino, before Ibanez ended it with a pop to center.
The Nationals, powered by Hernandez himself, had provided enough of a cushion against Phillies starter Cole Hamels. The left-hander entered having allowed six earned runs in his previous four starts, a span during which he yielded three walks and struck out 26. But he pitched with a tired arm, throwing only two pitches faster than 90 mph.
The lack of velocity made his change-up, one of the best pitches in baseball, less effective, and the Nationals took advantage. While they stranded six runners in five innings against Hamels, they also scored three runs.
The lone blemish for the Nationals was the end of Ryan Zimmerman’s hitting streak at 19 games. Zimmerman drew two walks against Hamels, in his first and third at-bats. But he struck out to end the eighth inning, halting his streak.
That hardly mattered afterward, as hip-hop music pumped through the Nationals clubhouse. Hernandez stood in one corner, recalling the fans’ ire from before the game.
“They were saying, ‘I could hit that curveball,’ ” Hernandez said. “Yeah, right.”