SAN DIEGO — There was a moment Thursday night, while Livan Hernandez lay flat on his back in the front of the pitcher’s mound at Petco Park, that the Nationals’ right-hander had more to worry about than the one-run deficit he was working with and the two-run homer he’d given up to the Padres in the first inning.
Inches from what he admitted later could very well have been “the end of my career,” Hernandez opened his eyes and was lucky to still have all of his faculties and facial bones intact, the brand new glove on his left hand saving him from a worse fate when he lifted it just in time to stop a hot shot by Chris Denorfia.
As Hernandez opened his eyes and ripped the glove off, shaking and squeezing his hand as it immediately swelled, the fact that he was not his sharpest on this night or that his team would once again fail to provide him with enough run support for even the smallest margin of error, was secondary. When things began to unravel and a one-run game turned into a 7-3 Nationals loss, with help from the bullpen, Hernandez’s safety was more important than his eighth loss of the season.
“It was very scary,” Hernandez said, after officially tying the major league lead in losses this season. “I think that was the most difficult line drive I’ve had in my career. It’s really, really scary.”
In a disconsolate clubhouse that followed the Nationals’ 36th loss of the year and 31st game this season where they’ve scored three runs or less, the fact that Hernandez caught that ball and escaped without further injury as he fell to the mound, was the only positive. Playing the only team in the National League with a comparably weak offense, the Nationals were still bested.
They left eight men on base, ran into outs on the basepaths twice in the first five innings and squandered both a bases loaded, no outs situation in the second inning and two different two on, one out instances in the sixth and the seventh. A sacrifice fly, an RBI single and a Wilson Ramos solo home run in the ninth was all they had to show for the night.
At this point, Hernandez is used to getting little run support. In the 14 games he’s started this season, the Nationals have averaged 2.6 runs. They’ve been shutout five different times when he’s on the mound, and they’ve helped him take a loss or a no-decision in his last eight starts.
They’ve also scored three runs or less in four of their past five losses.
“It is what it is,” said center fielder Rick Ankiel, who was caught stealing third base in the first inning, moments before Jayson Werth laced a double to right field. “It’s baseball. That’s all I’ve got.”
All those opportunities squandered, Hernandez still turned things over to the bullpen when it was only a 4-1 Padres lead in the sixth, and three straight relievers struggled to throw strikes.
It started with Sean Burnett walking the only batter he faced (Anthony Rizzo in his major league debut) to load the bases. Cole Kimball then walked in the Padres’ fifth run before getting two outs to finish the inning. It ended with Henry Rodriguez needing just five pitches to get the first two outs of the seventh, and then throwing 14 of his next 19 pitches for balls, walking three, throwing a run-scoring wild pitch, and allowing a single. Rodriguez gave up the Padres’ seventh run of the night without ever finding a way to get the third out of the inning.
“You can’t come out of the bullpen walking people,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “That’s just not going to work.”
Riggleman explained the sequence this way: Burnett selected the correct pitches to throw to Rizzo but couldn’t entice him to swing. Several of Burnett’s pitches that were called balls, including the ones to get to a 2-1 and 3-1 count, were close. Kimball missed with his first three pitches before issuing a 3-1 walk and Rodriguez once again “lost the strike zone” as the progress with his control took one step forward and three steps backward.
However it happened, it was the fourth night in the last five games that the bullpen allowed two or more runs to score and dropped the Nationals to nine games below the .500 mark for the second time this season.
“We lose a lot of good games and we’re supposed to win them,” Hernandez said. “We feel it. We’re human. We don’t feel too good about the games we lost by one run, [or the ones we’re] sometimes winning but we lost them in one inning.