- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Livan Hernandez didn’t get through the first inning unscathed, the Washington Nationals didn’t get anything going against a rookie pitcher and a sparse crowd at RFK Stadium didn’t see the home team win.

Last night’s 4-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds before an RFK record-low crowd of 19,264 was almost too predictable. The Nationals should have felt good about their chances coming in, with veteran Hernandez facing rookie Elizardo Ramirez, who had yet to win a game in 13 major league appearances. But as fans have learned over the last three weeks, this is precisely the kind of game Washington (7-12) isn’t winning.

That’s because Hernandez, the once stalwart ace, is forcing his teammates to dig their way out of huge holes with his first-inning troubles. And that’s too much to ask of a lineup that has a way of making hurlers like Ramirez look like unhittable veterans.

“Personally, I think we came out a little flat,” shortstop Royce Clayton said of a Washington team that is 1-5 at RFK this season.

Ramirez made them look that way. Called up earlier in the day to replace injured left-hander Eric Milton, the 23-year-old allowed just two runs over seven standout innings.

Hernandez wasn’t nearly as effective. The big right-hander struggled again to make it out of the first inning, giving up three runs before many in the crowd had settled into their seats.

Hernandez was tagged for five runs in Houston on April8, then served up three home runs to the Mets five days later at RFK. So when he allowed a single by Ryan Freel and a double by Felipe Lopez — with Freel scoring after right fielder Jose Guillen booted the ball — the Nationals had to have a sinking feeling in their stomachs: Here we go again.

“I’m just on the side looking at it, the runs are going up on the board,” manager Frank Robinson said. “But I don’t know what it is or why.”

It only got worse. Lopez scored on Adam Dunn’s groundout, and Austin Kearns singled and scored on Edwin Encarnacion’s double to make it 3-0 before Hernandez (1-3) finally walked off the mound having thrown 32 pitches.

For those keeping score at home, that’s 12 first-inning runs allowed in five starts for a hefty 21.60 ERA.

“I’ve had a couple of games where I’ve had trouble in the first inning,” said Hernandez, whose overall ERA is 6.68. “It’s not going to be the last one. Everything I throw in the bullpen is perfect. I’m ready for the game. I don’t know what happens the first inning.”

The Reds added another run in the second, but Hernandez gradually settled down after that, keeping the opposition from scoring again through the seventh. His first-inning troubles, though, are a growing concern for a club that isn’t built to overcome big deficits.

The conventional theory is that he still hasn’t fully recovered from offseason knee surgery. Though Hernandez maintains he’s “99 percent” healthy, it often looks like he’s not completely loose when he takes the mound. He doesn’t drive off the pitching rubber with any force, and his fastball barely reaches the low 80s.

“We just need to nip that in the bud as quick as possible and get that figured out,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “His location just has to be pinpoint the whole time, and when it’s not he’s going to give up some hits.”

As the game goes on, Hernandez seems to start feeling more comfortable. He picks up velocity, pushes off the mound with more emphasis and starts hitting his spots with more consistency.

“I’m not the kind of guy that makes excuses,” he said. “The other team beat me. It happens. It’s coming around. It’s difficult for me, but I’m going to be all right, and I’m going to start winning some games.”

Hernandez’s opposition last night had no such trouble finding his groove. Ramirez gave up a first-inning run when Alfonso Soriano singled, took second on a deep fly out to left and scored on Nick Johnson’s single up the middle, but he cruised after that, retiring 12 in a row.

Ramirez (1-0) wasn’t the first previously unknown pitcher to do a Cy Young impersonation on the Nationals. This club has a history of such uninspiring offensive performances, dating to 2005 (see: Seo, Jae) and continuing this year (see: Bannister, Brian).

“We don’t seem to be able to handle pitchers we don’t know,” Robinson said. “First-time guys, we seem to struggle with them.”

“I don’t know what the panic or the rush is. You’ve got to have a game plan. I don’t care if you’ve never seen the guy or if it’s a rookie or a veteran pitcher out there. You have to have a game plan.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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