PHILADELPHIA — Standing in the visitors clubhouse at Coors Field a week ago, Nationals manager Davey Johnson summed up veteran right-hander Livan Hernandez in one sentence: “Livo has pitched a lot of good games,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, when he’s a little off, he’s really off.”
In a season where the Nationals were 7-17 in games that he started, there seemed to be more off nights than on ones. After being unable to make it through four innings in Colorado, things had gotten so bad for the Nationals’ 36-year-old starter that the question arose whether or not his spot in the rotation was on the line.
But under a cloudless sky in Philadelphia — conditions Hernandez later deemed “perfect” — and in front of 45,762 rowdy Philadelphia Phillies fans, Hernandez turned in a vintage performance. The result was a 4-2 Nationals victory.
“He was marvelous tonight,” Johnson said.
Hernandez had a good feeling from the early afternoon on at Citizens Bank Park. He felt locked in taking batting practice — so much so he told Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein to “watch out.” Then he went out and drove in two pivotal runs with RBI singles in the second and sixth innings.
But he felt even better when the Phillies fans began chirping at him in the bullpen as he warmed up.
“I can hit that curveball,” a fan yelled to Hernandez. Hernandez smiled, and thought to himself, “Yeah, right.” Then he went out and threw 14 of them to the Phillies. Nine were thrown for strikes, two for strikeouts to Hunter Pence and one to get Wilson Valdez.
Only the one thrown to Ryan Howard was hit.
“The [fans] near the bullpen don’t understand, when you start talking to the pitcher, the pitcher gets more excited going into the game,” Hernandez said. “It wakes up the lion. You go into the game fired up.”
Hernandez faced the minimum in five of his first six innings. Twelve of his 89 ptiches traveled slower than 70 mph and all three of his strikeouts came on painfully slow curves. And he showed, at least for one night, that he can still be the same old reliable Livo.
“I don’t really notice when Livo’s off because he’s always the same guy,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, who was 2-for-4 with a double and scored a run. “I think that’s what makes him such a great pitcher. … It’s just Livo being Livo.”
Facing a lineup that featured present or former All-Stars at six of the eight positions in the field, Hernandez didn’t flinch. Instead, he turned in 6 2/3 innings of one-run baseball. The run, which came in a two-hit second inning for the Phillies, was unearned after Howard reached on an error by second baseman Danny Espinosa to lead off the frame. It was the only miscue of the night for Espinosa, who turned in several sterling defensive plays.
And it was the first time since a complete game shutout over the Cardinals on June 15 that Hernandez exited without allowing an earned run to cross the plate.
“Tonight, the curveball was working perfect,” Hernandez said. “I feel really good. The problem in Colorado, it’s a little different for a pitcher like me to throw the curveball and the slider. Everything was working perfect today.”
He was aided by four Nationals runs and a patient approach against Hamels, whose velocity averaged 88.6 mph, drastically lower than his season average of 91.4 mph. He walked four batters and struck out five, but two scored in the second inning after four of the first five batters reached base. And the Nationals loaded the bases on him in the fifth, getting one more run. His toughest out, it seemed, was Hernandez himself.