Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Livan Hernandez was all smiles on his first day back with the Nats.
That approach may rub some people in the game the wrong way, and it may have been a contributing factor in his still being unemployed as of three days ago. But it's always worked for Hernandez, and those who know him well trust that he knows what he's doing.
The Nationals have long trusted Hernandez to take care of himself, so no one was upset to see the big right-hander show up in camp today with a big grin on his face but no offseason throwing program to speak of. Indeed, the last time he threw off a mound was October 2 in Atlanta, a Nats victory over the Braves.
And if you watched him throw in the bullpen today, you'd have never known the layoff was so long. Livo looked like ... well, like Livo. Easy, smooth delivery. No wasted effort. Hitting his target with little
"I feel good," he said. "A couple more days, and I'm going to be 100 percent throwing on the mound and [with good] mechanics. ... I thought it might feel a little bit different, but it's not. I threw the ball well."
Even though the rest of Washington's pitchers have been formally working out for a week now, and most got a jump start earlier this month, Hernandez should be caught up with the bunch within a matter of days. The 35-year-old has always had a remarkable ability to keep his arm intact, despite throwing more innings than anybody else in baseball over the last decade and despite a body type few would describe as "athletic."
Truth be told, Livo is one of the best all-around athletes I've ever seen on a baseball field. He always handles the bat well. He always fields his position well. He was even recently voted one of the best golfers in Major League Baseball.
So it's a little strange to think he had to settle for a non-guaranteed, minor-league contract with a 103-loss club. If he makes the Opening Day roster, he'll earn $900,000, with incentives that would bump the salary up based on how much he pitches this season.
Hernandez, though, seems to understand why it happened this way. And he's not just assuming his presence in Nats camp ensures him a spot on the 25-man roster.
"Nobody wants to be in this situation," he said. "But I'm not trying to come here and do something I haven't done before. Always I come to spring training working hard and prepare for the season. I'm going to do my best. I know I've got a chance to win a lot of games this year. All I can do is go outside and try to do my best. I want to be part of the team. This is a good team they're putting together, and I want to be here and pitch."
Indeed, Hernandez seems to believe this Washington team has a chance not just to make a big jump from 103 losses to a .500 record, but to a much loftier position in the NL East standings.
"I think we've got a chance to make the playoffs," he said. "This is a good team with power and speed. I think it's going to be really nice."
Livo has always been the optimistic type, and he's always believed good things could happen with this franchise. Remember, he was the ace of this staff in 2005 and '06 and an All-Star his first season in D.C. He was devastated when Jim Bowden traded him to the Diamondbacks in August 2006 for Matt Chico and Garrett Mock. Now, all three could conceivably be in the Nats' rotation at some point this year.
Is Hernandez the same pitcher who you used to be able to count on for 15 wins, a sub-4.00 ERA and 240-plus innings? No. But he did record six quality starts in eight tries late last season with the Nats, and he's now several years removed from a knee injury that threatened to derail his career.
Other teams may not have been knocking down his door this winter, but Hernandez was confident all along the call would eventually come. And now that it came from the Nationals, he can't imagine anywhere else he'd rather be.
"I never thought that I'm not going to pitch, because I've never missed a year," he said. "I knew somebody was going to do it. I'm happy it's happening here. Now I'm here and signed back with Washington, and it's going to be nice."