- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Livan Hernandez never is going to be included among baseball’s elite pitchers.

Put Hernandez on the mound under the bright spotlight of a big game, though, and watch him work his magic. Watch him pitch his way out of tight jams like Curt Schilling. Watch him break a hitter’s back with a Pedro Martinez-like breaking ball. Watch him reach back and put something extra on a fastball like Roger Clemens.

And then watch him come through in a situation in which none of those other superior hurlers would find himself: at the plate in the eighth inning of a one-run game.

It’s what distinguishes Hernandez from nearly every other pitcher in the major leagues. And it helped make the Nationals’ 5-2 win yesterday over the Florida Marlins possible.

“He can hit,” said teammate Brad Wilkerson, whose .251 batting average is only four points higher than Hernandez’s. “I mean, it’s not like you’re sending an out up there every time.”

Not yesterday. Not only did Hernandez lift the Nationals to their third-straight win by carrying a shutout into the ninth inning, he delivered a critical, two-out, two-strike RBI single in the eighth — one of the defining moments of what could become one of the defining games of September.

Yes, it’s time to start believing again. Three days after everyone left them for dead, the Nationals are only 1 games behind the Houston Astros in the tightly bunched National League wild-card race. That’s a 2-game improvement in less than 48 hours.

“We feel good,” manager Frank Robinson said. “We’ve come back to life now. We’re winning games we know we have to win against the ballclubs we have to beat.”

That’s precisely why the Nationals (72-66) managed to make up a good chunk of ground over the holiday weekend. These last three wins all came against teams ahead of them in the wild-card race, and there’s plenty more opportunities to come.

Washington still has 15 games to play against the Marlins, Phillies and New York Mets.

“You’re playing in the same division now,” Hernandez said. “Any game you win now is very important.”

With two-fifths of the Nationals’ rotation now occupied by rookie Darrell Rasner (who will make his big league debut tonight) and long reliever John Halama, Hernandez and the other mainstays know they must come up big on days they pitch.

It’s hard to imagine anyone coming up bigger than Hernandez (15-6) yesterday. The right-hander didn’t allow a hit until the fifth inning and didn’t allow a run until the ninth, when Miguel Cabrera delivered a two-run homer.

Along the way, he made big pitch after big pitch, getting Paul Lo Duca to ground into a double play with two on in the fifth, Juan Encarnacion to do likewise in the seventh and then striking out Juan Pierre looking at an 86-mph sinker to end the eighth.

That sinker was Hernandez’s 110th pitch of the game. If he were anyone else, it would have been his last. In the bottom of the inning, with Washington clinging to a 1-0 lead, Robinson sent out pinch-hitters for both his No.7 and No.8 batters (Gary Bennett and Cristian Guzman). But when Hernandez’s spot came up with two on and two out, he let his pitcher to hit.

“I thought he was in full control of the game,” Robinson said. “If we were going to lose the game, he was going to be the one out there on the mound.”

Before he returned to the mound, though, Hernandez gave himself a bigger cushion. He stuck out his bat to make contact with reliever Guillermo Mota’s 2-2 pitch and sent a flare down the right-field line. Rookie Ryan Zimmerman came around to score from second base, and the 32,150 at RFK Stadium roared.

“I told Frank I wanted to finish the game,” Hernandez said. “It’s a great base hit. I’ll take it.”

The Nationals weren’t done. Two batters later, Marlon Byrd drilled a bases-loaded double to deep left-center, his third and biggest hit of the game. Washington suddenly led 5-0, and the celebration was on.

“It was a different team today than we’ve seen in awhile,” Wilkerson said. “It was the way we should play.”

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