- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2006

BOSTON — He has been the stalwart for four years now, an innings-eater who takes the ball every fifth day with no complaints and gives his heart and soul to his club.

There isn’t a more respected player inside the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse than Livan Hernandez, and that’s what has made this season so difficult to watch. Try as he might, the big right-hander simply cannot shake himself out of his season-long funk.

And that funk has a new low point: a start last night at Fenway Park that lasted just 12/3 innings as the Nationals lost 11-3 to the Boston Red Sox.

“They beat me, and they beat me bad,” said Hernandez, who gave up six runs in equaling the shortest start of his career.

Not since July 3, 2002 had Hernandez failed to make it out of the second inning. Back then, some felt the San Francisco Giants hurler was finished. He was traded to the Montreal Expos the following spring, but bounced back and re-established himself as the majors’ most-reliable workhorse.

The way things are going this season, some might wonder again if Hernandez has reached the end of the line. Yes, he had been giving the Nationals his usual boatload of innings — 971/3 in 15 previous starts — but the quality of his work has waned.

Hernandez leads the National League with 121 hits allowed. He went through a stretch earlier this season in which he was serving up home runs like creamed corn at an elementary school cafeteria. And after a brief, four-game upturn late last month, he has reverted to his unsightly form from April and May, hurling a fastball toward the plate that barely exceeds 80 mph.

“It’s very difficult to pitch in that velocity,” pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. “There’s maybe two guys in major league baseball, left-handers, who are doing that. It’s very difficult for a right-hander to do that.”

St. Claire plans to speak with Hernandez today, hoping the two can figure out what’s wrong. They’re running out of time.

It’s no secret the Nationals would like to trade the 31-year-old before the July 31 deadline, but they’ve got to wonder just how many teams would even want a pitcher with a 5-8 record and 5.64 ERA.

“I’m worried about him, yes I am,” manager Frank Robinson said. “Because this is the way it’s been except for two or three ballgames this year. It’s a tough way to pitch.”

Questions abound about Hernandez’s health. He insists he feels fine, even in his surgically repaired right knee. But he also refuses to make excuses for his performance, injured or not.

“A lot of people expect me to pitch the same as last year,” said Hernandez, who won 12 games before the All-Star break in 2005. “People don’t understand that it’s not going to happen every year. Right now, I’ve got five wins and the ERA is a little high. But there’s a lot of baseball that’s coming.”

Toeing the rubber against one of the toughest lineups he’ll face all year last night, Hernandez ran into a brick wall in the second inning. Six of the first seven batters he faced reached base, capped by Mark Loretta’s two-run double. Hernandez recorded one more out, but then gave up a run-scoring single to Manny Ramirez and a two-run double to Trot Nixon (the same man who led off the inning by singling and coming around to score).

That was as much as Robinson could take. He made the long, slow walk to the mound, asked for the ball and summoned reliever Jason Bergmann from the bullpen to clean up the mess.

This was the last thing the Nationals needed. The bullpen had already been stretched thin by Tony Armas Jr.’s 32/3-inning start on Monday, so much so that the club had to recall Bergmann from Class AAA New Orleans just to provide a fresh arm.

The state of the Washington relief corps will be even worse for tonight’s series finale. Bergmann probably won’t be available after throwing 21/3 innings, nor will fellow rookie Bill Bray (who threw 46 pitches in 21/3 innings of his own).

“Back-to-back nights like we had, to go to the bullpen, that’s not good at any time,” Robinson said. “I don’t know who will be ready out there [tonight] other than Chad [Cordero]. Those guys have been out there a lot for a longer period of time than they should be out there.”

The bullpen tried its best to keep things from spiraling further down last night, but it was a fruitless effort. Trailing 6-0 after two innings, the Nationals never mounted a serious threat.

Washington was held at bay by knuckleballer Tim Wakefield (5-8), who retired 13 of the first 14 batters he faced before finally walking in a run in the sixth. By then, Robinson had replaced several of his regulars, essentially waving the white flag and conceding his team’s second straight loss following an inspiring weekend against the New York Yankees.

“It is deflating, but we came back before,” first baseman Robert Fick said. “The Boston Red Sox are one of the best teams in baseball. This is one of the toughest places to play in baseball. They were just the better team the last couple days.”

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