As the Washington Nationals have surged this season, they’ve done it on the back of a pitching staff that is relentless. For much of the year, the Nationals bludgeoned opponents with power arm after power arm and they made the rotations of years past something of a distant memory.
It seemed like a long time ago that Livan Hernandez was starting on Opening Day for them. As manager Davey Johnson put it on Thursday, “We had some starters that had some age on ‘em that could give you innings.”
But it wasn’t so long ago. And for a player who threw the first pitch in Nationals’ history, watching the Nationals flourish the way they have this season has been a true joy.
“I’m happy for all my friends on that team,” Hernandez said Friday, in town as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers’ bullpen. “It’s a dream come true for all those people and for the city, it’s very nice.
“It’s a city that loves baseball. You win in every city and everybody comes to the stadium and support you. Now, football here is big and I think it’s going to be nice for the (Nationals) to make the playoffs and now all the fans, they’re going to realize the team is going to make the playoffs every year and be in the top of the division every year. This city, I think is a baseball city.”
Hernandez, who had interest in returning to the Nationals this season but the team simply didn’t have room for him, always had a genuine affection for being a member of the Nationals and living in D.C.
He spoke glowingly and effusively of his time here and of the Lerner family, calling Ted Lerner a “great, great person,” and saying that he “always feels like I’m at home,” in D.C.
“I think it’s something very very nice and fortunately give all the credit to Mike Rizzo for putting a team together with a lot of chemistry,” Hernandez said. “That’s important. You can have a good team and if they don’t have a lot of chemistry, it won’t work. They did the right thing.
“A lot of people deserve a lot of credit for doing a good job and putting everything together. People don’t know how hard it is to put a team together that makes the playoffs. Playoffs are something you dream of. In spring training, it’s never going to be a good year if you don’t make the playoffs.”
About as durable as the come and a pitcher who could eat innings with the best of them, Hernandez was intimately aware of what was going on with the Nationals and their plans for Stephen Strasburg. He was there last season when the team did the same thing with Jordan Zimmermann and while he praised the organization for doing it, he empathized with Strasburg’s plight.
“I feel bad for Strasburg,” he said. “But in the same way, he’s a franchise player too, like (Ryan Zimmerman) and Jordan, and I think you’ve got to take care of what you’ve got. You don’t want to push the guy too much. I understand Mike Rizzo and if I’m Mike Rizzo right now I’d do it the same way and Strasburg, he understands I think.
“He’s got to understand, he’s got to take care because more playoffs are coming. I think that this city is going to be in the World Series. If not this year, next year or really soon, and win the World Series probably. I think the owner and Mike Rizzo are looking for that. You don’t want to blow his arm again. It’s frustrating, I understand. I think you play baseball to play baseball and pitch the whole year but I understand the point too that it’s a hard decision.”
And even with that decision looming over them, Hernandez wasn’t at all surprised by the Nationals’ success this season.
If he had to pick, Hernandez said he’d go with the Nationals and the Braves as the two teams he sees as the strongest because of their team chemistry. Hernandez was with the Braves at the start of the season as a long reliever, breaking camp with them after getting cut by the Houston Astros. He caught on with the Brewers in mid-July.
Despite the fact that his tenure with the Nationals ended almost a year ago, Hernandez, a strong clubhouse influence, said he takes pride in what they’ve been able to do this season.
“I feel good,” he said. I” feel good because I know that I put a little touch over there on the young guys. It’s a great feeling… It’s a lot of years (without going to the playoffs). I feel really good and really happy for the guys and for the organization and the owners I know the owner (Mark Lerner) is the number one fan of the team. You see the owner catching fly balls in center field, it’s because he loves baseball. It’s something you never see on a lot of teams I think any team. It’s something special.”