ATLANTA — Before the Nationals took the field Tuesday night, clubhouse manager Mike Wallace told Livan Hernandez that he was nearing a milestone. With his 33rd pitch of the night, Livan Hernandez would become the 12th pitcher since 1988 to throw 50,000 pitches in the major leagues. Tim Wakefield is the only active pitcher who has thrown more pitches than Hernandez.
In the bottom of the second inning — on a pitch his teammates told him simply had to be his trademark slow curveball — Hernandez got Braves starter Jair Jurrjens to ground out to third base on a 68 mph curve. First baseman Chris Marrero squeezed the ball in his glove and trotted into the dugout with it. Wallace secured the ball for Hernandez.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. “We were wishing for a strikeout but we got a ground ball. Fifty thousand pitches. Man, that’s quite an accomplishment.”
It was an interesting milestone — and not one that you normally hear much about (mostly because it happens so rarely). But it solidified, again, how remarkable Hernandez’s longevity is in this game. Earlier this season, Hernandez made his 450th consecutive major league start. With Tuesday night’s 9-2 victory over the Braves under his belt, that number is now up to 473.
“I feel proud,” Hernandez said. “I thank God every day he gives me a chance to throw with no problems… It’s not easy to throw 50,000 pitches. I told the young guys: ‘You get here, you try to stay here. You don’t try to stay here for a couple years and then go somewhere else. You’ve got to stay on this level. It’s easy to make it, but it’s not easy to be consistent every five days.’”
It was a milestone that got Hernandez thinking about the future.
Hernandez, the same man who threw the organization’s first pitch seven years ago, has come and gone from the organization so many times already. But he is 36, the Nationals have a growing stable of young, promising arms ready to compete for major league spots next spring and Hernandez is a free agent.
He was in this position last year around this time and the affable Hernandez approached Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo about a deal for this season. Without an agent or any go-betweens, Rizzo signed Hernandez for a million dollars. It was a $100,000 raise over his 2010 salary and kept him in an organization Hernandez both enjoyed and was comfortable with. Simple as that.
With his status for 2012 still undetermined and the Nationals youthful pitching talent inching ever closer to making a significant impact at the major league level, Hernandez said Tuesday night that he has spoken with Rizzo about next season and would be willing to be a long reliever for the team if it meant staying in the organization.
“I’d love to stay here,” Hernandez said. “It’s not the money. I know I can make more money outside. It’s about, I enjoy every day here. I enjoy playing baseball here and the city, too.
“It’s where you feel comfortable. It’s not about the money. I lived before with no money. This is where you feel good. I’ve seen a lot of people here come up, like (Ryan Zimmerman) when he came up in ‘05. I’ve seen a lot of things pass. Sometimes you want to be part of something.”
“I know a lot of young guys are coming now,” he added. “I can be a long reliever next year, I think.”
Hernandez has discussed the switch to long relief with pitching coach Steve McCatty. It doesn’t sound like it would be that much of an adjustment but when you consider that Hernandez has made 474 major league appearances and only one has been as a reliever (his major league debut with Florida in 1996), it would be a significant change.
But Hernandez can also see what is happening within the organization. The Nationals Opening Day rotation next year already has three locks: Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and John Lannan. Toss Ross Detwiler’s name in as the first for the competition for the rotation’s final two spots, add in Brad Peacock, Tom Milone, Brad Meyers, Tom Gorzelanny (if he’s still in the organization), Yunesky Maya, Craig Stammen and maybe even Chien-Ming Wang if the Nationals decide to invest more money in the sinkerballer. That’s all just from the current members of the Nationals’ organization.
Hernandez has said he wants to play for about four more years. On a healthy right knee (which he had drained seven times during the 2005 season without once going to the disabled list) he plans to ramp up his offseason conditioning to a cardio-intensive program he used to subscribe to that includes kick boxing and spinning. That’s an offseason plan that will now include him working to learn how to become a long reliever. For a guy who learned how to change from a power pitcher to a finesse, control guy between starts in 2005, when he realized his knee injury would hold him back from reaching the mid-upper 90s with his fastball any longer, it probably won’t be that hard.
“I know that I can do it in the offseason,” Hernandez said, nixing the possibility of trying it out before this year is out. “It’s not hard for me. I’ll have to throw a lot of pitches before the game but my arm could be more fresh, too.”
He sees a future for himself as an assistant general manager or advisor in a major league organization — maybe even this one, he said — and he feels like his role on the Nationals current staff is that of a leader, an assertion John Lannan agreed with.
“The stuff he’s been through, everything he’s done, he’s the leader of our staff,” Lannan said recently. “Livo enjoys life, to the fullest, ever day. Sometimes you catch yourself not doing that and he reminds you that we’re lucky to be here and everything’s perfect, pretty much.”
“His confidence in his stuff, his ability to put the ball where he wants it (is what makes him unique),” said outfielder Laynce Nix. “It’s been a joy for me to watch it. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to play and spend the year with him and get a real appreciation for what he does in every facet of the game. He’s a great athlete. He’s a confident player. It’s great to be on his side.”
Hernandez has played for eight different teams during his career, but it’s the Nationals he feels something of an emotional attachment too. There are certain things that will have to be worked out. A federal investigation of money laundering into Hernandez is still open and the Nationals may want some resolution on that front before they move forward, but in judging him as a teammate and a pitcher, there’s no doubt they’d be willing to discuss a future.
“(Rizzo and I) talked a little bit and we’ll see what happens,” Hernandez said. “Hopefully something good.”