- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2010

VIERA, Fla. (AP) — Livan Hernandez can forget about waiting for Washington Nationals manager Jim Riggleman to sit him down for a formal talk about Monday’s official word that the 1997 World Series MVP earned the fourth spot in the team’s starting rotation.

“Livo probably would say, ‘No kidding. Why are you telling me that? Was there ever a doubt?’ So might not want to offend him by telling him,” Riggleman said with a smile. “We’ll just act like I’m assuming it’s him.”

Riggleman announced Monday that the Nationals have settled on four-fifths of their starting staff, with right-handers Craig Stammen and Hernandez added to the already-decided jobs assigned to opening day pitcher John Lannan and free-agent signing Jason Marquis.

Stammen will be the team’s No. 3 starter, coming off right elbow surgery.

“He knows he’s outpitched everybody here, except maybe Lannan,” Riggleman said.

Stammen will be followed by Hernandez, who signed a minor league contract in late February and has made only two spring appearances so far.

The 35-year-old right-hander was supposed start Monday against the New York Mets, but that game was canceled after heavy showers overnight and into the morning left large puddles in the outfield grass at Space Coast Stadium.

As for the fifth starter?

Riggleman said that slot is still “up in the air,” with left-hander Scott Olsen and right-handers Garrett Mock and J.D. Martin in the running. The Nationals have some time to make a decision on who will fill that role, because an off day early in the regular season means they won’t need a fifth starter until April 11.

Hernandez has a 2.25 ERA this spring against major leaguers, and in his second spring start, against the New York Yankees’ real lineup Wednesday, he went five strong innings, allowing one run and three hits.

“He’s got a rubber arm,” Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez said that night, after going 1 for 2 off Hernandez. “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.”

Hernandez credited picking up racquetball this offseason with helping him drop some weight and arrive in Florida in good condition.

“He’s throwing good. He’s hitting his spots. He’s in good shape,” Riggleman said, when asked why Hernandez was picked for the rotation. “There’s a certain amount of comfort level when he’s out there, When he’s pitching, you feel like, ‘OK, let’s see if Livo dials one up here today that gets us deep in the ballgame, and sets our bullpen up nicely. Knock on wood, we haven’t really worn our bullpen out on many days when Livo pitched.”

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.

The 26-year-old Stammen had an operation in September to remove bone spurs from his elbow, a condition that put him in nearly constant pain last season, including days when he didn’t pitch. He went 4-7 with a 5.11 ERA in 19 starts, all the while unable to fully straighten out his right arm and having to use his left hand for such tasks as washing his hair, brushing his teeth and shaving.

He said Nationals trainers knew, but he didn’t tell anyone else, including coaches — until, eventually, he thought “it got to the point where it was probably affecting my performance more than it needed to.”

As someone who hadn’t had an arm injury since he was a teen, it was worrisome.

“When you have an injury to the other body parts, it’s not your moneymaker. My arm’s my moneymaker. That’s my one tool, so when you have something wrong with that, and you have to have surgery, you always wonder: ‘Well, will you ever be the same as what you were?’ Fortunately,” Stammen said Monday, “it worked out for me. I feel pretty good right now.”NOTES: The Nationals claimed C Chris Coste off waivers from the New York Mets. … RHP Stephen Strasburg will make his professional debut at Double-A Harrisburg at Altoona on April 11, GM Mike Rizzo said.

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