- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2005

LOS ANGELES — There’s no one on his pitching staff Frank Robinson would rather hand the ball to in a must-win situation than Livan Hernandez. The veteran right-hander is the Washington Nationals’ ace in every sense of the word.

So it had to come as quite a comfort to Robinson to know Hernandez would be on the hill last night against the Los Angeles Dodgers in a game his Nationals simply needed to win.

Not because they were in the midst of a long losing streak — they had won as recently as Monday — but because they desperately needed something positive to happen after three straight days of injuries and infighting.

Given all that, Hernandez was just what the doctor ordered last night. And more. He allowed two runs and seven hits and pitched the first complete game in Nationals history, leading his team to a 5-2 victory before 33,081 at Dodger Stadium.

A Washington club that could have left Los Angeles late last night for San Francisco reeling from its recent spate of bad luck instead headed north having taken two out of three from the first-place Dodgers. The Nationals will enjoy an off-day by the bay in good spirits, then open a three-game series against the Giants tomorrow night.

Hernandez (4-2) made that possible by earning his third win in as many starts and keeping his teammates in the game until they could make a dent into Dodgers starter Odalis Perez.

Stymied for the better part of six innings against the Los Angeles left-hander, the Nationals finally tagged him for four runs in the seventh to take the lead for good on back-to-back run-scoring hits by Vinny Castilla and Nick Johnson (who also homered in the fifth).

That provided more than enough support for Hernandez, who took the mound in the ninth, sitting on 115 pitches but not looking at all tired.

Hernandez was on his game from the beginning, retiring the first nine batters he faced (three on strikeouts). His only hiccup came in the fourth, when Cesar Izturis led off with a single, stole second, then came around to score on a pair of groundouts.

The Dodgers put the pressure on again in the fifth, loading the bases with two outs. But Hernandez got Hee-Seop Choi to pop out harmlessly to short on a 62 mph curveball that had the Korean first baseman lunging just to make contact.

Hernandez was all business after that. It’s a good thing he was, because his teammates weren’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard themselves.

With several of his regulars mired in slumps, and with a tough left-hander on the mound, Robinson shook up his lineup. Leadoff man Brad Wilkerson (1 for his last 24) got his first night off of the season, replaced in center field by recently recalled Endy Chavez. Left fielder Ryan Church and catcher Brian Schneider also took a seat in place of a couple of right-handed bats: veteran left fielder Jeffrey Hammonds and catcher Gary Bennett.

It took awhile, but the new look did ultimately produce some positive results. Just not early on against Perez.

There’s a reason Nationals general manager Jim Bowden coveted Perez so much this winter. When his curveball breaks as much as it did on a cool, damp night in Southern California, the left-hander is very tough to beat.

Washington’s hitters found that out the hard way early on, flailing away helplessly at Perez’s breaking ball, at times feeling fortunate simply to foul a pitch off. For four innings, Perez had his way. Beyond that, the Nationals finally got to him, starting with Johnson’s solo homer in the fifth.

Perhaps the Nationals first baseman’s best trait as a hitter is his ability to work the count and wait for his pitch. He executed that plan to perfection his second time up last night, working the count full before turning on Perez’s 3-2 offering and sending it just over the 375-foot sign in right-center for his third homer of the year.

Washington strung six hits together in the seventh to take the lead. Jose Vidro started things off with a single up the middle. Two batters later, Castilla roped a double to the gap in right-center, Vidro coming all the way around to score just in front of Jeff Kent’s wayward relay. Moments later, Johnson came through with his second big hit of the night — an RBI single through the drawn-in infield to make it 3-1. Hammonds followed with a perfectly executed hit-and-run (so perfect it nearly took Johnson’s head off) and that ended Perez’s night.

Wilson Alvarez entered and coaxed a fly ball from Bennett, just deep enough to score Johnson from third with the Nationals’ fourth run. Hernandez helped his own cause with a bloop single to left, and Chavez followed with a double to left-center, bringing Hammonds around with run No. 5.

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