- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2010

TAMPA, Fla. | It all began one early morning this offseason at a Miami fitness club, when a 60-something guy recognized Livan Hernandez, the burly, affable Cuban who was the 1997 World Series MVP.

Here’s what the older gentleman wanted to know: Would the pitcher everyone calls “Livo” give racquetball a try?

“He called me out,” Hernandez recounted. “And I said, ‘Oh, you want to play? OK.’ I played tennis before, so I said, ‘Let’s go.’ And he beat me 15-1, 15-2. And I said, ‘OK, it’s not easy.’ But I started liking it.”

So much so, actually, that the 35-year-old Hernandez began playing his new sport pretty much daily, as many as eight games in a single day. He credits those workouts with helping him get in better shape, giving the right-hander a chance to crack the Washington Nationals starting rotation this spring — and, he says, perhaps stay in the majors for quite some time.

“I wish I had 10 more years in me. Five more will be good,” Hernandez said. “Let’s see if I can make it.”

He’s been bouncing around the big leagues lately, but by his showing so far this spring, who would doubt him?

With top draft pick Stephen Strasburg opening the season in the minors, and Chien-Ming Wang sidelined until at least May, the Nationals are still trying to figure out their rotation.

John Lannan and Jason Marquis are assured spots, and manager Jim Riggleman said Thursday that Craig Stammen is “a good bet” to make it. Garrett Mock is also a likely member of the staff, leaving Hernandez, Scott Olsen and J.D. Martin in competition for the fifth spot. Martin started Thursday night against the Detroit Tigers and went five innings, allowing five runs in the first before settling down and retiring the last 11 batters he faced.

“I’m working hard,” Hernandez said, “and trying to be the same Livan I used to be.”

He has a 2.25 ERA in two exhibition starts against major leaguers, including a strong five-inning outing Wednesday night against Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and the rest of the New York Yankees’ real lineup. He allowed one run and three hits, and his three strikeouts included two of Teixeira.

Hernandez threw 74 pitches — after throwing his customary 80 to 85 in the bullpen beforehand.

“He’s got a rubber arm,” said Rodriguez, who was 1 for 2 off Hernandez, with a groundout and an RBI triple. “He’s a great guy to have on any staff, because he knows how to win, he knows how to compete — and he’s still doing it.”

Yes, he certainly is.

Still around, still fooling hitters. Still using that loping delivery. Those pitches hovering barely above 60 mph. That familiar No. 61 on his back and big wad of pink bubble gum in his mouth.

It’s a formula that has produced a 156-151 record in the majors. Hernandez can’t throw as hard as he did 13 years ago with the Florida Marlins, when he became the first rookie in half a century to win two World Series starts, but he was hitting 86 mph consistently Wednesday.

“It seems like he’s been pitching forever,” Riggleman said. “But when you put him out there, you put him out there with confidence. You don’t put him out there thinking he’s going to break down. … You just put him out there and feel like he’s going to give you good effort and give your team a chance to win the ballgame. And five days later, he’s going to do the same thing.”

Ask Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo why Hernandez keeps sticking around, and it’s the innings that are the first thing mentioned. As in: “He brings innings.” And: “He’s an innings-eater.”

Hernandez threw a total of 183 2-3 last season during stints with the New York Mets and Nationals, more than all but one pitcher on Washington’s 2009 roster. He’s logged at least 180 innings in each of his 12 full major league seasons, including nine with more than 200, and he led the NL in that category every season from 2003 to 2005 for the Expos-Nationals.

“He’s a gamer. He’ll pitch every five days. He’ll throw you six, seven, eight, nine innings. He’d throw 200 pitches if they let him,” Nationals catcher Wil Nieves said. “It’s always good to have a guy like that in the rotation.”

Back in his first go-round with the franchise, Hernandez was Washington’s opening day starter in the club’s first two years in the nation’s capital. The Nationals traded him to the Arizona Diamondbacks during the 2006 season, and then he also spent time with Minnesota, Colorado and New York before the Mets released him in August 2009.

Within a week, he was back with the Nationals, going 2-4 with a 5.36 ERA in eight starts the rest of the way. He became a free agent, then signed a minor league contract with Washington in late February.

Not a lot of time to get ready for the regular season, but Hernandez didn’t need it, apparently. Everyone around the Nationals is quick to point out how much slimmer he is, although Hernandez himself can’t — or won’t — say how much weight he lost.

He acknowledges he dropped “some pounds,” but says, “I never look” at the scale.

“This is the best condition I’ve seen him in — in years,” Rizzo said. “He was doing his own spring training when he was waiting for someone to sign him.”

A lot of that time, it turns out, was spent on a racquetball court.

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