It was a simple act for Davey Johnson. He’d done it thousands of times. His starting pitcher was in trouble, and it was time to make a change. All he had to do was walk to the mound, signal to the bullpen and pull him.
He was a reluctant participant this time, though. This time it meant removing Livan Hernandez, his “toughest hook,” from his final start of the season. It also might be the last in a Nationals uniform for the man who threw the budding organization’s first pitch seven years ago.
“I’m not going to say that it’s his last start as a National,” general manager Mike Rizzo said before Washington’s 6-3 loss to the New York Mets on Sunday. “Livan and I are going to talk in the offseason. He wants to be here. We love Livo, and I think there’s a fit for him here - during his playing career and beyond.”
As he walked off the field, the crowd acknowledged such uncertainty with a standing ovation. Just as he did when they applauded him on his way in from the bullpen hours before, the big, 36-year-old Cuban righty doffed his cap. If it was farewell, so be it.
“Something good is going to happen,” Hernandez said. “If not here, somewhere else. It would be nice if it was here…. I know what [salary] I want, and I’m asking for something. I’ve got to wait and see what the answer is. It’s not in my hands. But what I’m asking, is not too much.”
Hernandez walked into the Nationals’ clubhouse around 11 a.m. wearing white pants and a white T-shirt with his sunglasses on. He greeted everyone as if it were any other day in his 16-year career.
He then allowed six earned runs in 5 1/3 innings and absorbed the loss.
That was it for 2011. Time, as they say, to let the kids play. His spot in the rotation will be freed up for young and largely untested talent. It was the 474th consecutive start for Hernandez, who has never missed a day of work as a member of a major league starting rotation. But for the first time in a few years, Hernandez’s future is uncertain.
“I don’t know what he’s thinking about,” said left-handed starter John Lannan, one of the Nationals’ pitchers most influenced by his time with Hernandez. “But I know what I’m thinking about. He’s not done. he’s definitely not done yet. He’s still going to pitch. If he doesn’t pitch here, he’ll pitch somewhere else.”
Hernandez has handled his changing role - from starter to mentor in a matter of days - with grace and professionalism. As the Nationals put up three runs on Mets starter Mike Pelfrey with RBI hits from Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos in the fourth inning, it seems as though they were going to send him off as a winner, for the 175th time in his career. Instead, Hernandez allowed the tying run on a solo home run by Lucas Duda. Todd Coffey, summoned to relieve him in the fifth, served up a two-run single. Instead, Hernandez’s career record dropped to 174-176.
“I have so much confidence in him,” said manager Davey Johnson. “But I’ve also seen times when he’s not right and he bunches a lot of hits together. I had my freshest guy to get him out of a jam. It didn’t work out.”
Now he’ll sit, and watch. He could be used as a pinch hitter when the situation calls for a bunt, he could be used again as a spot starter. He’ll certainly be looked to for advice, opinions and a guiding hand as the Nationals continue to infuse their roster with youth. One thing no one seems to doubt is that he’ll be back on a mound next spring. Whether he has ‘Washington’ stitched across his chest is another matter.
“He’s had a great career,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “I don’t think anybody thinks this is the end of it.”
“Livo can do anything,” Lannan said. “He’s like a dad. When you’re younger, your dad is awesome at everything. Anything he does, anything he wants to do, he can do.”