- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 27, 2009

CHICAGO | The sight of Livan Hernandez on the mound wearing a curly W on his head Wednesday night was enough to tug at the heartstrings of any long-suffering — OK, brief-suffering — Washington Nationals fans who remember a time not long ago when the crafty right-hander was carrying this franchise to the best record in the National League.

Washington’s surprising reacquisition of Hernandez after he was released by the New York Mets isn’t going to have much effect on the remainder of this lost season. But it can’t hurt, certainly not if he continues to pitch the way he did Wednesday against the Chicago Cubs.

With six highly effective innings at windy Wrigley Field, Hernandez proved he’s still got something left in his tank. Unfortunately, his presence alone couldn’t spur his teammates to make the most of it. The Nationals still wound up losing 9-4 after their bullpen imploded following Hernandez’s departure.

Deadlocked in the seventh inning, Chicago seized control of the ballgame by scoring seven runs off three Washington relievers, including five off Jorge Sosa.

Thus what was shaping up to be a nice pitchers’ duel devolved into an unsightly loss for the Nationals, who didn’t exactly take advantage of the emotional boost their newest starter provided.

From the moment he walked through the clubhouse doors around 4 p.m. Wednesday, Hernandez was the center of attention. Few pitchers in baseball have as commanding a presence as this 34-year-old, who has been a regular member of big league rotations since 1997.

Only a handful of current Nationals (Cristian Guzman, Ryan Zimmerman, Jason Bergmann) were around the last time Hernandez wore the uniform in 2006, but even those who didn’t know him were quick to shake his hand and say hello.

Washington didn’t sign Hernandez off the scrap heap to be some kind of savior. He’s likely only to be here for the next six weeks, then become a free agent and look for work elsewhere this winter.

The Nationals, though, wanted to bring him in for two reasons: 1) to eat up some necessary innings and prevent several rookie starters from overtaxing themselves down the stretch, and 2) to perhaps mentor some of those young pitchers who have lacked a veteran influence all season.

“We needed a veteran presence on the staff, and Livan represents that,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “He’s also a guy who has a great track record in the game. He’s pitched in every imaginable situation. I don’t think anything’s going to faze him. He’s done it all. And I think he can be a great mentor to some of these young players. But more importantly, go help us win some ballgames.”

Sure enough, Hernandez went right out Wednesday night and did his part to try to win the game. He wound up receiving no decision, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.

Really, the right-hander made just one mistake: a 2-1 fastball to Milton Bradley in the third that wound up in the right-field bleachers for a two-run homer. Otherwise, he was spectacular in keeping the Cubs off-balance all night, scattering five hits while striking out six.

By the time he departed after six innings, Hernandez had thrown 116 pitches. That hardly qualifies as breaking a sweat for a guy who in 2005 threw 150 pitches over nine innings against the Florida Marlins. But on this Nationals team, that qualified as the most pitches thrown by any starter in 127 games.

Hernandez’s teammates supplied him with a couple of runs — on a sacrifice fly by Josh Willingham in the first and an RBI single by Guzman in the fifth — but they squandered an early opportunity to pounce on Chicago starter Rich Harden, scoring only once in the first inning despite putting the evening’s first three batters on base.

It was a stark contrast to Tuesday night’s ballgame, in which Washington pounded three home runs en route to a 15-6 victory. There was no such offensive explosion Wednesday, at least not for a Nationals club that surely hoped Hernandez’s return would produce a more-satisfying outcome.

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