- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 3, 2006

He was their ace for nearly four seasons, a trusted and beloved veteran pitcher who came to embody the franchise, both in Montreal and later in Washington.

So when Livan Hernandez walked off the mound last night at RFK Stadium wearing the unfamiliar black, gray and purple of the Arizona Diamondbacks, he was appropriately saluted — even in defeat — by Nationals fans who never had the chance to say goodbye before he was traded last month.

Despite giving up a pair of eighth-inning home runs to Ryan Zimmerman and Austin Kearns — the difference in a 4-3 Nationals’ victory that came only hours after they rallied from five runs down to capture a 7-6, 11-inning win in the first half of a day-night doubleheader — Hernandez earned a standing ovation and tipped his cap to the crowd of 22,922.

“I want to say thank you to the fans for giving me good support,” Hernandez said. “This is a great city. This city is in my heart. I had a good time here, with the fans and with my friends. It’s something I’m never going to forget.”

The Nationals and their fans may never forget this dramatic doubleheader, which that featured a pair of thrilling comebacks from a team that suddenly has a knack for late-inning heroics.

Washington (58-77) has won three straight games despite trailing in the eighth inning in all three, and in the ninth twice.

“A lot of people want to write us off when we’re not playing great,” said Ryan Church, one of the stars of the afternoon victory. “But, like I told you guys, we’ve got things to play for. We showed that we play with heart and battle.”

A minuscule gathering witnessed the day’s first win, which came via a Zimmerman walk-off walk in the 11th. Then the home team stormed back to topple Hernandez after being stymied by the big right-hander for seven innings.

Zimmerman got things started with a solo homer to left, trimming Arizona’s lead to 3-2. Nick Johnson followed with a one-out single, and Kearns hit a two-run shot to right that put Washington on top.

“I think the last three wins we’ve had say a lot about the team and the guys in here,” Kearns said. “Hopefully, we can all finish strong.”

Hernandez, clearly fatigued by the time he surrendered the second homer, stayed in to face three more batters before finally departing.

“They beat me in one inning,” the right-hander said. “That was the ballgame.”

His counterpart, reliever-turned-starter Jason Bergmann, was surprisingly effective in seven solid innings but didn’t figure into the decision. The win went to reliever Saul Rivera, who pitched a scoreless eighth. The save went to Chad Cordero, who had already thrown two scoreless innings in the early game to earn the win.

The evening pitchers’ duel followed an afternoon slugfest that featured another dramatic Nationals comeback. Trailing 6-1 in the eighth, Church launched a three-run homer to jumpstart the rally. Alfonso Soriano hit the tying, two-run homer in the ninth — his 44th of the year — tying Vladimir Guerrero’s single-season franchise record. And Zimmerman drew the last of Brandon Lyon’s four walks in the 11th, allowing Bernie Castro to score the winning run.

Washington earned its second straight win when trailing by at least two runs in the ninth, a first in franchise history.

“We’ll take ‘em any way we can get them,” manager Frank Robinson said.

The Nationals had a tough enough time getting into the first game considering it was played in a most unusual setting, with a cold mist hanging in the air, a host of unfamiliar rookies on the field and perhaps 800 fans in the stands for a rescheduled game that became necessary after Tropical Storm Ernesto swept through town Friday.

“Those people who came out to watch us today, that’s hardcore right there,” said Zimmerman, who admitted even he would have stayed home and watched college football if he had tickets to the game. “I appreciate that.”

Those who did stick it out witnessed seven innings of lifeless play by the Nationals, followed by four entertaining innings. Shut down all afternoon by right-hander Miguel Batista, Washington finally struck against the Diamondbacks bullpen.

They even managed to score the winning run without benefit of a single hit. Lyon entered in the 11th and immediately got into trouble, walking Castro, surrendering a sacrifice bunt to Robert Fick, intentionally walking Soriano and then walking Felipe Lopez to load the bases.

Lyon got two strikes on Zimmerman, but then tried to catch him looking at back-to-back curveballs on the inside corner. But both narrowly missed catching the strike zone.

For the 21-year-old rookie, it was his 10th game-winning RBI of the season and fourth game-ending RBI.

“[A bases-loaded walk] is not the usual way,” said Zimmerman, who leads all major league rookies with 92 RBI. “You usually get a hit or something like that. But it’s a win. We’ll take it.”

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