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An intersection of past, future

- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 11, 2007

PHOENIX — Livan Hernandez and Matt Chico have never met. They come from different backgrounds, one a 32-year-old Cuban defector who has worn his emotions on his sleeve throughout a career in which he has won 131 games, the other a quiet 24-year-old from California who has rarely shown even a glimpse of emotion during a five-win rookie season.

These two polar opposites, however, will forever be entwined because of one simple transaction a year ago out of either's control. On Aug. 7, 2006, the Washington Nationals traded Hernandez (their stalwart ace) to the Arizona Diamondbacks for a pair of minor league pitchers named Garrett Mock and Matt Chico.

And last night, their paths officially crossed for the first time. Almost exactly one year from the day both of their careers were forever altered, the two pitchers found themselves starting against each other. The Nationals wound up losing 11-4 before 31,110 at Chase Field in a game in which Manny Acta's entire pitching staff (particularly Chico) lost its ability to find the strike zone, overshadowing Hernandez's inability to keep the ball in the park.

Washington pitchers issued a season-high 10 walks, including three by reliever Saul Rivera during a painful seventh inning in which the Diamondbacks scored five runs to break open a tie ballgame. Luis Ayala later surrendered the second two-run homer of the night by Conor Jackson, putting the Nationals' usually reliable bullpen on the hook for seven runs. We feel very good when our bullpen is in, Acta said. But as Ive said, theyre human.

Rivera loaded the bases on free passes (including one intentional walk), then allowed a two-run single to Mark Reynolds that put Arizona on top. Ray King entered and walked the first batter he faced, then surrendered his own two-run single to Miguel Montero, blowing the game wide open and making a winner out of Hernandez.

The portly right-hander experienced a typical night for those who have watched him throughout his career. Hernandez served up three solo home runs in the sixth to Felipe Lopez, Ryan Zimmerman and Austin Kearns as the Nationals rallied to tie the game 4-4.

But the veteran hurler battled through his difficulties and wound up lasting seven innings, which made him the pitcher of record. His counterpart, Chico, managed to keep the ball in the yard, but that may only have been because he barely gave the Diamondbacks anything to hit. The rookie left-hander fought his command all night, walking six batters over five labored innings (four in the third inning alone).

I cant explain it, Acta said. Just poor command of every one of his pitches. His command was so off that when he needed to throw the ball off the plate ... he couldnt. Hed throw it over the plate.

Though the Nationals surely weren't ecstatic over Chico's performance last night, they remain perfectly content with the way last summer's trade turned out. Chico has become one of the poster children of Washington's youth movement, the lone member of the rotation to make every start this season even though hes posted a 6.25 ERA in six starts since the All-Star break.

"I think it's consistent with the plan that was set to be carried out here," Acta said. "We can't second guess ourselves. We like what we've seen out of Chico. And our minor league people are happy with Mock, too."

Mock was actually the centerpiece of the deal from the Nationals' standpoint. The 24-year-old right-hander has the build of Roger Clemens and the "stuff" to be considered a top-of-the-rotation pitcher some day.

But Mock's progress has been slowed by injuries and he has struggled to a 0-4 record and 6.60 ERA this season at Class AA Harrisburg. He did, however, strike out seven and walk only one Thursday night, and club officials continue to believe he can develop into a front-line major leaguer.

"He was the number one guy in the deal," general manager Jim Bowden said. "That's not going to change. Now, people have injuries and people don't always live up to your potential. But Mock has a chance to be a solid No. 2 or 3 starter if he puts it together."

Chico was more of a throw-in, an added piece the Nationals asked for in exchange for taking on a portion of Hernandez's remaining 2006 salary. Buried in Arizona's deep farm system, the left-hander nonetheless was highly thought of by keen scouts, none more important than Mike Rizzo.

Rizzo, who had just been named the Nationals' assistant general manager after seven seasons with the Diamondbacks, was Chico's biggest supporter and helped finalize the trade. "If Mike Rizzo had not come on board, the deal does not get made," Bowden said. "Our scouting department wasn't deep enough to pick out Chico. Mike knew him."

Though Chico had made plenty of friends in the Diamondbacks organization, including close friend Jackson, he knew his chances of making it to the big leagues in Arizona were slim. So he welcomed the trade to Washington, which offered him a chance to make the Opening Day roster this season, not to mention a chance to finally pitch at Chase Field last night.

I think its big for anybody in the minor leagues, wanting to pitch in the big leagues with that team, he said. I got the chance today. I wish I would have done a little better, but I had some fun out there except for that [third] inning.

The Nationals are happy the way things worked out, but the Diamondbacks aren't exactly complaining about the guy they picked up in the deal. Despite a slight hiccup in midseason when the entire team was struggling, Hernandez has done exactly what he did for the Nationals. In 24 starts spanning 150.1 innings, the right-hander is now 8-7 with a 4.85 ERA.

"He's a mainstay," Arizona manager Bob Melvin said. "He's a guy we lean on very hard. We expect good things out of him, and he expects them out of himself."