It was almost like old times for the Nationals Saturday afternoon, with Livan Hernandez on the mound and the team looking to climb above the .500 mark for the first time since 2008.
Thanks to the veteran right-hander's complete-game shutout, and a three-run second inning punctuated with a Justin Maxwell two-run homer, Washington grabbed a 8-0 win over the Brewers to move to 6-5 on the season. It's also the first time the Nats have been above .500 11 games into the season since the team's first homestand ever back at RFK Stadium in April of 2005.
Hernandez -- who was part of that 2005 squad that was part of Washington's first Major League Baseball franchise since the Senators left D.C. in 1971 -- was effective in his second start of the season, scattering four hits and getting himself out of a bases-loaded jam in the second inning by inducing a double play from his Brewers counterpart, Randy Wolf. As the game progressed, Hernandez became more in command, not yielding a base hit after Wolf hit a single in the fifth inning.
Despite his late signing and making only two spring appearances, through two starts this season for Washington, Hernandez (2-0) hasn't yielded an earned run, and gave the Nats' bullpen chance to rest in the Nats' third straight win.
"He kind of exemplifies what we're trying to do with in terms of our pitching staff," Washington manager Jim Riggleman said of Hernandez's performance. "We're not a strikeout staff ... but just [to] throw strikes, put the ball in play and let the defense work. He has no fear, he throws any of his pitches anytime for strikes and fields his position. He's everything we want from a pitcher, [he's] got a loose arm and always ready to pitch, and he's had two great outings so far."
"I feel good," Hernandez said of his first complete-game shutout since being a member of the Expos in 2004. "It depends on how you feel. You don't feel this good every day, but I felt good today."
At the plate, Maxwell -- who was recalled from Syracuse on Thursday -- finished the day with three RBI after driving in Ivan Rodriguez in the sixth -- just after the veteran catcher drive in a pair himself -- to blow the game wide open.
"That's why Maxwell was a high draft pick, we kind of are hoping he can do that now and then," Riggleman said. "The ball really jumps off his bat and his athleticism speaks for itself."
Ryan Zimmerman also returned to the starting lineup after being injured in last Saturday's game against the Mets, and recorded a pair of RBI doubles to help Washington's cause in front of 18,673 on a blustery day at Nationals Park. He also added a nice defensive gem in the ninth, robbing Casey McGehee of a hit down the line with a great stab.
Hernandez started out the game by striking out Rickie Weeks, and then grabbed a comebacker from Craig Counsell for a quick second out. After Ryan Braun hit a single through the middle for the Brewers' first hit, Hernandez got a long fly out from Prince Fielder to end the top of the first.
Nyjer Morgan popped out to center to open the bottom half, then Guzman lined out to Casey McGehee. Zimmerman walked in his first at-bat, but Adam Dunn grounded out to second to end the frame.
McGehee struck out to open the second, but Jim Edmonds smacked a double to the out-of-town scoreboard in center. Corey Hart walked, and George Kottaras got a free pass after running a full count on Hernandez. However, Hernandez got out of the jam when he forced opposing pitcher Randy Wolf to ground back to the mound, leading to a force out at home and the throw from Ivan Rodriguez to beat Wolf to first for the double play to keep Milwaukee off the board.
That twin killing was huge for the Nationals, who then struck for three runs in the bottom half of the second inning.
"The pitcher put it down, so I had to make a chance to get a double play and it happened," Hernandez said.
Josh Willingham opened the frame with a walk, and Ian Desmond moved him over to second base with a sac bunt. With Willingham going to third on a full count, Rodriguez hit a single just over the glove of a leaping Counsell at short to drive Willingham in for Washington's first run of the game.
The next batter, Justin Maxwell, smacked his first home run of the season off a 3-1 offering from Wolf to center, driving in Rodriguez for a 3-0 Nationals lead and giving the Nats some breathing room early on.
Hernandez flied out to right, but Morgan got on base with a two-out walk. However, Guzman struck out swinging to end the inning, but not before the Nats got the three-run lead.
Armed with the advantage, Hernandez made quick work of the Brewers in the third, getting Weeks to fly out, Counsell to ground out and then finished with Braun popping out.
Wolf recovered to record a 1-2-3 inning for his half of the third, striking out Zimmerman, getting Dunn and Willingham to fly out.
Milwaukee got a bit of a threat going in the fourth, after Fielder grounded out, McGehee put a double in between Morgan and Maxwell in the gap in right. However, Hernandez erased the threat, getting Edmonds to fly out and Hart to grounding out to short. After Washington came up empty in their half of the fourth, the Brewers got a hit from Wolf, but couldn't move him over, thanks to Weeks popping out to right, and Counsell ended the inning by grounding into a force play with Wolf out at second.
The Nats got some insurance in the fifth thanks to Guzman and Zimmerman, as Guzman reached first on a single, then stole his third base of the season with Zimmerman at the plate. The Nats' All-Star then promptly drove Guzman in with a double down the left field line.
Gernandez again made quick work of the Brewers, striking out Fielder and inducing a ground and fly out to keep rolling.
The Nats then put the game out of reach with a three-run sixth by pouncing on Brewers reliever Todd Coffey.
Willingham welcomed Coffey to the game with a double to the scoreboard, and Desmond dropped a base hit in between three Brewers in the outfield to put runners on the corners with no out. Rodriguez then drove in both runners with a double to the scoreboard, then moved to third on a throwing error from the center fielder to push the score to 6-0 with no out.
Maxwell then added his third RBI of the afternoon by flying out to drive in Rodriguez before Coffey finally worked out of the inning.
Hernandez continued to make short work of the Brewers in the seventh, finishing the 1-2-3 frame on his 90th pitch of the afternoon thanks to a Kottaras grounder.
Zimmerman collected his second RBI in the bottom half of the frame off new reliver Chris Narveson, as after Guzman got a single and took second on a throwing error, the third baseman doubled to center to drive him in.
Milwaukee got a base runner on in the eighth thanks to a fielding error on Guzman, but Hernandez was able to prevent any damage.
Hernandez got some help from Zimmerman in his bid to finish the complete game, as the third baseman made a nice grab of a McGehee shot and threw him out for the second out of the ninth that Hernandez afterwards called an "unbeliveable play." Hernandez earned his eighth career shutout and 48th career complete game thanks to his 112-pitch performance.
The win marks only the second time in the last three seasons the Nationals have been above .500, as the team started out the 2008 3-0 -- before going on to lose nine straight to drop below the break-even point for the rest of the season. It is also the latest the Nationals have been above .500 since their first season in Washington. The team was 7-4 after 11 games on April 16, 2005, when they moved to 7-4 in their second game ever at RFK Stadium with a win over Arizona.
"Maybe subconsciously it has some effect on people, but I think it's a feeling of playing good baseball," Riggleman said of being above the mark. "Usually, that'll show up in the record -- it doesn't always. I think getting some wins so the players get rewarded for their hard work. It does show up being above .500 right now, but it's more about the work they're putting in, the energy they have, the attitudes they have has been outstanding. We're glad we're above .500, but it's a small number right now.
Jason Marquis, who has struggled in two starts for Washington this year with an 0-2 mark and a 12.96 ERA, looks to complete the sweep of Milwaukee Sunday when he faces another struggling arm in Doug Davis (0-1, 12.27 ERA).