- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2005

VERO BEACH, Fla. - Livan Hernandez’s curveball wasn’t finding the strike zone, but the Washington Nationals ace didn’t need it yesterday against the Los Angeles Dodgers’ split-squad.

Hernandez continued a string of good outings by the Nationals’ projected starters, limiting the Dodgers to no runs and five hits in six innings in a 9-3 Washington victory.

The right-hander struck out three and walked one, appearing strong enough to pitch into the late innings if it had been the regular season.

“The curve wasn’t working I guess, but the other pitches were working very good,” Hernandez said. “I tried to throw the curve time after time and nothing. I thinking I’m not going to throw one for a strike. I feel good. I can go seven, eight or nine [innings]. I think I can go eight innings.”

Hernandez, who has been named the club’s Opening Day starter April4 against the Philadelphia Phillies, seems to be pitching better each time he takes the hill in spring training.

“That’s Livan just pitching,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “I’ll still say you haven’t seen the real Livan yet. He’s going to get much sharper. It just goes to show you he knows how to pitch. That’s the key.”

In his last outing Tuesday, Hernandez’s curveball was working against Cleveland, and he struck out five Indians batters in six innings. Yesterday, Hernandez went to the slider ” Hernandez says he has two in his arsenal ” and enticed the Dodgers to ground out eight times.

“Today, he threw more sliders than he did curveballs,” Nationals catcher Brian Schneider said. “I kept trying him to get him to throw the curveball, and he kept shaking off. You’ve got to understand right there that he’s not going to throw it today, which is fine. Then we work with the slider and go from there.”

Hernandez went 11-15 with a 3.60 ERA last year with the Montreal Expos. He led major league baseball last season with 255 innings and nine complete games. Hernandez has pitched 20 innings in spring training and has walked just two.

Robinson said he expects Hernandez to pitch two more times before the regular season opens.

“He’s where he needs to be,” Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. “Actually, I thought his four-seam command wasn’t as good as usual. On certain days your breaking balls, one or the other, usually don’t work the same. When he’s got the slider, he commands the slider, his changeup and his two-seamer, and he does so many other things that if one pitch is off, he’s able to execute his other pitches and do a good job.”

Guillen’s got a gun

Dodgers second baseman Jeff Kent found out just how good the arm of Nationals right fielder Jose Guillen is. With Kent on first after a bloop single, Milton Bradley singled to right. Kent tried to go to third, but Guillen fired a strike to third baseman Carlos Baerga, who tagged out Kent by at least a foot.

“He knows better. I’ve been in the National League before. Everybody knows the type of arm I have,” Guillen said. “A lot of people think because I was playing left field last year, they probably think I don’t have the same type of arm I used to have. The arm is still there. I kind of saw him running, and I just let it go. It’s not all about hitting and pitching. You’ve got to do some little things in the field to win games, too.”

Escobar plays

Nationals outfielder Alex Escobar returned from a strained right quadriceps. Escobar, who started in left field, struck out in the first, reached on a throwing error by Dodgers third baseman Antonio Perez in the fourth and singled in the sixth.

Escobar, who once was a top prospect in the New York Mets organization, is battling for one of the Nationals’ backup outfield spots. The injury jeopardized his chances of making the 25-man roster.

“Physically, I think I have come a long way. My leg is not hurting. It’s a little stiff, but it’s good,” Escobar said. “Today was the first day. The more I play, the better I get.”

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