- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — For the past two days, the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse was quiet, a place for small talk as the team’s new players got acquainted.

That all changed yesterday when Livan Hernandez walked through the door. Music blasted, and the mood was upbeat. Baseball’s top workhorse was back.

“Livan brings a presence,” left-handed reliever Joey Eischen said. “He’s been our No. 1 guy for a while, and when he shows up, we know we have one of our big guns in town. … It’s good to see him in here working. He brings energy, life and some volume to the clubhouse.”

He’s also bringing a surgically repaired right knee. Hernandez, who turned 31 yesterday, underwent surgery Oct. 5 to repair a small tear of the lateral meniscus in his right knee. The procedure was performed in Miami by Dr. John Uribe, who told Hernandez the knee wouldn’t be 100 percent for six months, or until early April.

Hernandez threw about 45 pitches in the bullpen yesterday, practiced leading off base and rode off in a golf cart at 10:49 a.m. to receive treatment on his knee. Hernandez, who figures to be the Nationals’ Opening Day starter against the New York Mets’ Pedro Martinez at Shea Stadium on April 3, said he’s not 100 percent but doesn’t feel pain.

“I’ve got to be ready for the first day,” said Hernandez, who won 12 games in the season’s first half and finished 15-10 with a 3.98 ERA in 35 starts last season. He has led the National League in innings pitched for three consecutive years, working 2461/3 in 2005.

“I know he carries a lot of respect around the league from other players,” manager Frank Robinson said. “The way he goes about his work on the field, I think that sets the tone for the other guys. He does things the correct way.”

Hernandez left his Miami home at 4 a.m. on his birthday to drive to camp. He was tired, but that didn’t stop him from throwing in the bullpen on his first day.

The right-hander uses about eight deliveries, and his variety of offspeed pitches baffles hitters. The Nationals tried to protect Hernandez and his knee during the second half of last season, but the 6-foot-2, 245-pounder never wanted to leave a game. Hernandez said yesterday he might have tossed 270 innings if his knee hadn’t hurt.

Obviously, the injury reduced his effectiveness: He went 3-7 with a 4.58 ERA in 112 innings after the All-Star break. That was a major factor in the team’s collapse. The Nationals went 31-50 in the second half after a 50-31 start.

“He felt like every time he took the ball, he was going to go nine innings, no matter what,” Robinson said. “The good ones, they perform even though they’re not 100 percent — they find a way to get the job done.”

Hernandez’s highly publicized blowup at RFK Stadium on July 20, when he told reporters he was shutting down for the season because of his knee, was merely out of frustration. Hernandez said he doesn’t regret his decision to keep pitching even though he was “99.9 percent” sure he would need surgery.

“I’ve never been hurt. I’ve never missed one start. It was difficult for me to get up and go get an operation,” he said. “[But] I had my knee drained after every three starts.”

Hernandez said he had to change his mechanics to pitch during the second half because he was unable to get low on his follow-through. In yesterday’s bullpen session, Hernandez said he felt he was able to get lower on his release.

“He looked outstanding, just like riding a bike,” said veteran catcher Alberto Castillo, who caught Hernandez. “I had Livo when I was with the [San Francisco] Giants, and he’s the same guy — he goes to the mound and throws strikes — and he did that today. He looked all right. He had good command of all his pitches. He only threw maybe six or seven sliders, but he threw a sinker, a changeup and a fastball. Nice and easy.”

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