PITTSBURGH — The walk to a major league pitcher’s mound is more routine for Livan Hernandez than any other current major leaguer. Saturday night, he started for the 450th time without an interruption on the disabled list, more than any active pitcher, a tribute to the adaptability of his approach and the durability of his right arm, which may well be made out of Silly Putty.
But there was nothing routine about the first walks Hernandez made Saturday to and off the PNC Park mound during the Washington Nationals’ 7-2 loss to Pittsburgh Pirates. After a 1-hour, 11-minute rain delay, late notice about the start time forced Hernandez to throw his final warmup pitches in the bullpen while the Nationals batted in the first inning. Then he allowed five runs in the first inning, something that happened to him once in those first 449 starts.
Hernandez’s rocky start, a dearth of offense and sometimes-shoddy defense conspired to give the Nationals their third straight loss, dropping them below .500 at 9-10. The Nationals’ offense, which produced six hits, could not recover. The past three games, they have 13 hits and five runs, “but that’s not where my thoughts are at,” Manager Jim Riggleman said.
The Nationals committed three errors, all of them on stolen base attempts by the Pirates, which made three of the seven runs Hernandez allowed unearned. Shortstop Ian Desmond made two errors, giving him six for the season, more than any player in the majors.
“We were a poor defensive ballclub last year, and we cannot be a poor defensive ballclub,” Riggleman said. “We’re too athletic to do that, and we’ve just got to do a better job.”
Desmond’s errors came on throws to second, one from Wilson Ramos on a steal of second that he simply dropped, one from Adam LaRoche after a pickoff that he missed trying to make a slap-tag, “one of those where you have to catch it, take care of the baseball,” Desmond said.
During the game, Desmond switched his glove to the one he uses in practice. The new glove is the same size as his old one, maybe more broken-in. After he explained the switch, Desmond inhaled deep and pushed out a dejected sigh, like a man ready make a change for the sake of change.
“I wish I had an answer,” Desmond said. “Obviously, pretty frustrating. It’s getting to be a little ridiculous. I mean, the ball was in the air. In my life, I don’t ever remember dropping balls in the air.”
Hernandez salvaged his start and gave the Nationals a glimmer of a chance, allowing four earned runs on nine hits and three walks. He threw 110 pitches in six innings. The last time he allowed five runs in the first, April 8, 2006, he also lasted six innings, which is exactly what the kind of thing you would expect from Hernandez.
“He’s got a slow heartbeat out there,” said Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle, who managed Hernandez with the Colorado Rockies. “He’s like the big guy at the company picnic who drinks all the beer and wins all the trophies.”
Afterward, Hernandez was still upset at the way the game began. Hernandez likes to have 45 minutes to warm up, but he learned when the game would start a half-hour before the first pitch. He put on his spikes and headed to the bullpen, where he threw his customary 85 warmup pitches. The last of them, he threw during the top of the first.
He jogged into the game from the bullpen in center field. He could not remember how long it had been since he did that. He found it odd having wet grass shavings stuck to his shoes.
“It’s not normal,” Hernandez said. “When something happens like that, they got to let us know with more time. I’m not saying it’s an excuse.”
Hernandez thought Pirates starter Jeff Karstens did have more time. He implied the Pirates learned about the start of the game before the Nationals.
“The other pitchers were there already,” Hernandez said. “How? I think they knew before.”
The Pirates had scored five runs in their last three games, but five of the first six Pirates he faced ripped hits. Right fielder Jayson Werth had a chance to prevent two doubles with tremendous plays, but one deflected off his glove after a long run and the other flew over his head after a late jump. Neither catch would have been easy, but Werth has perhaps made tougher plays.
Later, he did. Werth later made up for his difficult defensive inning. In the fourth, with two outs and a man on third, Garrett Jones clobbered a deep fly ball to right-center. Werth turned and sprinted to the warning track, leaped and crashed into the wall to rob Jones of at least a double and an RBI.
“It’s got some pretty good padding on it,” Werth said. “I was okay.”
After Werth hit a solo home run in the fourth, the Nationals squandered their best chance to make it a game. In the seventh, Wilson Ramos led off with a double and Michael Morse followed with a single, giving him his second multi-hit game of the season. Hurdle removed Karstens for reliever Chris Resop.
With runners on the corners on no outs, Resop struck out both Desmond and Jerry Hairston. Matt Stairs pinch-hit and smoked the first pitch he saw at third baseman Pedro Alvarez, a tough-luck way for him to remain hitless on the season.
The Nationals would go quietly from there, producing their only base runner the final two innings on a two-walk in the ninth. They have scored two runs or less in seven of their first 19 games.
“I feel like it’s going to line up here pretty soon,” Werth said. “Everybody’s going to get locked, and we’re going to take off. As little as we’ve hit, we’re not in a bad spot. We start hitting, we’ll be all right.”