- The Washington Times - Friday, March 10, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — It didn’t take long for Livan Hernandez to test his surgically-repaired right knee in his first appearance of the spring yesterday.

Here’s the situation: Two outs and a runner on first in the second inning. Florida Marlins outfielder Jai Miller hits a slow roller between the pitcher’s mound and first base. Hernandez flies off the mound and in one motion scoops up the grounder with his glove and shovels it to first baseman Nick Johnson, beating Miller by a step to turn what looks like a sure infield hit into the final out of the inning.

The Washington Nationals ace allowed one run on three hits in three innings. He walked two and struck out two.

“The knee feels good,” Hernandez said after his 56-pitch effort. “I made a couple moves on the mound. I covered first base. I passed the ball to Nick Johnson. When you’re on the mound, you do a lot of thinking. I feel very good. Every pitch was not perfect, but it’s there. I’m working on my game and try to be ready for next time.”

Hernandez racked up All-Star credentials in the first half of last season, going 12-3 with a 3.48 ERA in 19 starts (134.1 innings). But the season’s second half was a different story.

Plagued by an ailing knee, Hernandez finished 3-7 with a 4.58 ERA in 16 starts (112 innings). What could have been the first 20-win season of his solid career was negated by the lateral meniscus ailment in his right knee — the first major injury the Cuban right-hander has suffered during his nine-year career.

But after offseason surgery, Hernandez is eyeing a strong return.

“I feel better than last year,” Hernandez said. “I’m the kind of guy of what is in the past is in the past. I know I have good pitches. I know I feel good, because I did my job with the knee. I’m thinking more about this year than last year. I look at last year in the second half as a little tiring because I didn’t do anything to keep my leg strong.”

Understandably, he was not able to mask his frustration. Following a 3-2 loss to the lowly Colorado Rockies on July 20, a visibly upset Hernandez said he was 99.9 percent sure he was not going to pitch again the rest of the season. The following day, Hernandez said he would finish the season. On Oct. 5 — three days after the Nationals’ season finale — Dr. John Uribe operated on Hernandez’s knee in Miami.

Meanwhile, newly acquired right-hander Pedro Astacio also made his spring debut yesterday. Astacio had a rocky fourth inning following Hernandez, walking the first batter he faced, Marlins right fielder Mark Little, on four straight pitches. He walked two, allowed a single, but escaped a bases-loaded jam in the fourth when Marlins DH Mike Jacobs popped out to center.

“I was trying to throw strikes. That’s what happened, I didn’t throw strikes,” Astacio said. “I have to come back to the next hitter and throw strikes.”

Astacio, one of five pitchers battling for three spots in the Nationals rotation, was satisfied with his one inning of work against live hitters.

“It was good to get back to the mound and see some hitting and just continue to move forward,” Astacio said. “I’ll just get ready for my next game.”

Added Nationals manager Frank Robinson, “He was OK for the first time out. Arm strength was good I thought. Mechanics were good. He needs to be sharper next time out.”

With uncertainty and question marks surrounding the Nationals’ rotation, Hernandez offers stability as an innings-eater. For the second consecutive season last year, Hernandez led Major League Baseball in innings pitched with 246.1.

Despite battling inflammation in his right knee for most of the season, Hernandez topped the 200-inning plateau for the seventh time in eight seasons. With his 35 starts last season, Hernandez became one of four pitchers to make 30 or more starts eight straight seasons. The others are Bartolo Colon, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddox.

“There’s a reason why he’s one of our highest paid players,” Nationals general manager Jim Bowden said.

It’s hard to put a price on what Hernandez means to the Nationals. He works deep into games and saves the bullpen work.

“It’s not because our starting pitching stinks. What he does is he takes a lot of wear and tear off our bullpen,” Robinson said. “Without that last year, the bullpen would have been a disaster. That’s what he does. He can’t help [John] Patterson. He can’t help [Ramon] Ortiz. He can’t help Astacio and he can’t help [Tony] Armas and those guys, but when he goes to the mound I feel like the bullpen is going to have an easy night. Even the night before, when we’re playing a game and he is starting the next day, you use your bullpen differently because you feel like he’s going to give you X-number of innings. That’s the importance of him on this ballclub.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the http://www.washingtontimes.com/sports>Sports Page

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