- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Livan Hernandez of old is back.

The Washington Nationals ace turned in a strong performance to keep his resurgent team rolling.

At the beginning of the season, many wondered what was wrong with Hernandez. Sure, he underwent offseason knee surgery, but history says he is certainly better than the pitcher who won only once out of his first nine starts.

But Hernandez started with six scoreless innings last night and cooled off one of baseball’s hottest teams with a 10-4 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers at RFK Stadium.

In seven innings of work, Hernandez allowed just six hits and three runs, struck out five batters and didn’t issue a walk in leading Washington to its fourth straight win.

Overall, a quality outing.

“I think, but I’ve got to be ready for the next one, I don’t want to be cocky,” said Hernandez, who is 2-1 with a 2.57 ERA over his last three starts. “I know I’ve gotten better than that [early season]. I know I can pitch better than how I pitched before.”

The Dodgers (27-21) rolled into the nation’s capital just a half-game behind the Arizona Diamondbacks for first place in the National League West. Los Angeles boasted a season-high seven-game win streak after outscoring its opponents 55-12. The Dodgers had won nine of their last 10 and 15 of 18.

Hernandez (3-5), though, cooled off the Dodgers. A vintage Hernandez performance goes something like this: He allows runners to get aboard, gets into trouble during certain innings, but usually battles out of jams.

Toss the stereotype aside. Hernandez was virtually unhittable through the first six. He kept the Dodgers off-balance all game with a variety of breaking balls. His fastball topped out in the mid-80s, but it didn’t matter because the Dodgers couldn’t hit his off-speed pitches. His slider and curveball worked to perfection.

“The main thing he did is he stayed ahead of hitters,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “He’s starting to put it together and this team is starting put it together.”

The crowd of 22,712 saw Hernandez win his second straight start for the first time this season. The win improves the Nationals (20-29) to 12-12 in May after going 8-17 in April.

The Dodgers finally got to Hernandez in the seventh, when his pitch count topped 100. Until then, Hernandez had allowed just two harmless singles through six innings. In the seventh, he gave up three runs on four hits. The big hit in the inning came when backup third baseman Olmedo Saenz lifted a two-run double into the alley in left, making it a 6-3 game.

Hernandez’s poor start this season is directly attributable to his first-inning woes. In his 10 previous starts, Hernandez had been rocked for 19 first-inning runs. Coming into last night’s game, opponents were hitting .423 (22-for-52) with five home runs and seven walks off Hernandez in the first inning.

Last night Hernandez need only 10 pitches in the first inning to entice the Dodgers to pop up three times.

Hernandez took a no-hitter into the fifth inning, when Los Angeles third baseman Willy Aybar hit a bloop to left field. Alfonso Soriano, Royce Clayton, and Ryan Zimmerman all converged on Aybar’s pop-up and the ball fell between them.

However, the play wasn’t over. Aybar thought he could turn his cheap hit into a double and motored to second. Soriano, who was converted into an outfielder during spring training, picked up Aybar’s ball on the hop and fired it to second baseman Jose Vidro, who tagged out Aybar.

While Soriano may look shaky at times defensively, he’s proving there is nothing wrong with his arm. By throwing out Aybar, it was Soriano’s major league-leading ninth outfield assist.

“The other teams say I don’t have experience to play in left field, so when they get a chance to run, they run,” Soriano said.

Hernandez, who led the majors with 2461/3 innings last season, also led the Nationals in wins (15) and starts (35). Recently, the Nationals have been giving Hernandez minuscule run support, as he had received three runs or fewer in five of his last six starts.

The Nationals bats supported their leader last night. After five innings, the Nationals led 5-0. Every position player, including Marlon Byrd off the bench, had at least one hit. Zimmerman matched his career high for RBI with three for the second straight game. The rookie phenom went 2-for-5 with two doubles, three RBI, and a run scored.

With the Nationals comfortably leading in the eighth inning, Soriano hit his 17th home run of the season off Dodgers reliever Tim Hamulack. With his two-run shot, Soriano has 10 home runs at RFK — tied with Nick Johnson for the most for any active player.

Soriano, the Nationals leadoff hitter who entered the game with a .378 average in 12 games from that spot, continued his torrid hitting. He went 3-for-5 with a home run, two doubles, two RBI, a stolen base, and three runs scored. Johnson, who came into the game 2-for-26 (.077) in his last nine games, went 2-for-3 with a double, two walks, and three runs scored.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

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