Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Determined to prove them wrong

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Unemployed in February, Livan Hernandez is now 3-1 with an 0.87 ERA.
CHICAGO -- All winter, Livan Hernandez sat in his Miami home, waiting for a call, any call from a major-league GM willing to offer him a contract.

November turned to December. December turned to January. January turned to February. Everywhere he looked, Hernandez saw free agents with lesser track records getting contracts, nice ones. Yet nobody saw value in one of the most durable and most successful pitchers of his time.

At age 35, was this it for Hernandez? Was this the end of a fantastic career that began with a World Series title for the Marlins at 22, continued at a high level for another decade and then fizzled out over the last few years? Livo refused to believe that. He didn't want his career to end, not like this.

"I don't want them to forget me," he said. "I feel sometimes bad at home when I see people signing and signing. I say, 'Wow, did I do a good job?' But I understand. It's business. I want to show I can still pitch, to show to the people that I'm not done."

Four starts into his 14th big-league season, Hernandez looks anything but done. He looks brilliant.

With seven more innings of superb pitching tonight in the Nationals' 3-1 victory over the Cubs, the wily old right-hander extended perhaps the unlikeliest early season run of pitching this sport has seen in some time.

The numbers say it all. He's 3-1 with an 0.87 ERA. He's allowed three runs over 31 innings, surrendered only 19 hits. He's averaging just shy of eight innings per start.

Are those the kind of stats you expect from a guy who had to settle for a minor-league contract in late-February, from a franchise coming off back-to-back 100-loss seasons?

"I thought it was a good signing at the time," said Nats GM Mike Rizzo, who inked Hernandez for $900,000 plus incentives. "We kind of knew what he could do for us. We knew he'd be a guy who could pitch deep in games and give us innings. But the performance level has been great."

There's an understatement. Hernandez has been far beyond what the Nationals could have ever imagined when they signed him to that bargain-basement deal. Forget about John Lannan or Jason Marquis. This guy is the Nats' ace, the one everyone else looks up to as the anchor of a pitching staff that has been through a roller-coaster ride so far this season but somehow has produced an 11-10 record.

"He's taken the staff and he's kind of put himself in the lead as far as leadership," Rizzo said. "The young guys are talking to him and listening to him. It's really been fun to watch. Livan is leading in his own kind of way. He's such a light-hearted, good-hearted guy. To watch the young starters gather around him and pick the brain of the master, it's pretty fun to watch."

Leaders still need to perform on the field, though, to carry that kind of sway. If Hernandez owned a 5.87 ERA right now, what good would his advice to Lannan and Craig Stammen and Luis Atilano be?

His actions have spoken loudest when he's been on the mound, slinging up mid-80s sinkers and low-60s curveballs, making even the most-accomplished big-league hitters look foolish.

"He's the consummate pitcher," manager Jim Riggleman said. "He hits his spots. He believes in that style of pitching. And it's worked for him. He just continues to trust his stuff. ... Hitting is about timing. Pitching is about getting hitters off their timing, and he's able to do it."

Yeah, but for the better part of the last four seasons, Hernandez wasn't able to do that. Remember how awful he looked in the early portion of the 2006 season, during the final days of his prior stint with the Nats? Plenty of astute baseball men thought he was done. Finished.

What happened? Basically, Livan got healthy again. He's never liked to talk about the knee injury that began plaguing him late in the 2005 season, but that ailment had a profound effect on his career. And he's only now finally feeling like his old self again.

"Sometimes I don't show to people how I feel," he said. "I love this game. I play this game 100 percent, and I like to play hard. I don't feel the last couple years like 100 percent. The knee bothers me. I feel like 90 percent, but I don't feel perfect perfect. When you feel like that, you miss a lot of stuff, when you miss a lot of pitches. That's the one reason everything is going well this season."

Nationals officials noticed a new-look Livan when he arrived in Viera at the end of February.

"You know what, he came into spring training in as good of shape as I've ever seen him," Rizzo said. "And as determined and focused as I've ever seen him. I think it goes hand-in-hand with his performance."

This is how a 35-year-old pitcher no one else wanted this winter goes from an afterthought to the ace of a resurgent ballclub that -- can you believe this? -- currently stands one game out of first place in the NL East.

For a guy who only two months ago wondered if he'd ever get a chance to pitch in the major leagues again, it's a dramatic turn of events.

"I want to show to the people that I'm not done," Hernandez said. "I've got many years in baseball that I want to play. Because I love this game. I do everything they ask me. Pitch every five days. Never miss a start for 13 years. People think it's easy. It's not easy. Being on the mound every five days, throw 200 innings every year no matter what happens, no matter how you feel. I'm there. This is what I want to prove to the people.

"And I think everything is going good now."


Anonymous said...

While he may never make it to Cooperstown, Livan has the stuff that hall-of-famers are made of. Great article, Mark.

Anonymous said...

3rd graph should probably read "was this it", not "was this is".

AMcVee said...

Yea Mark, you're article on livo made me think for the first time that yea, why not Livan Hernandez in the hof someday? The way you describe him with the youngsters makes me want us to sign him to a three year extentio. Great article.

Cwj said...

He definitely belongs in the Washington Nationals Hall of Fame. I really hope he eventually retires as a Nat. Great guy, and a fun to watch pitcher.

Doc said...

Fun readin' MarkMeister! Just the same I, I think that mongoose oil and chicken bones has something to do with Livan's success. I guess this could be Rizzo's best signing, but even he didn't know how good Livan was going to be. Gooooooooo Nats!!!!!

Richard in Bethany said...

When Livo steps out there we have a great chance to win the game! The people who railed against this signing have run for cover.To think that nobody wanted this guy!! Way to go Rizzo==andGO NATS!

Anonymous said...

guy eats innings which is what this club needs....just another black eye for Bowden in trading(?)this guy in 2006. He is a beast. If the Caps lose tonight at least we got the Nats!

Anonymous said...

Is his father Horacio Pena? Somebody told me that a while ago

Dave said...

Our emotional connection to Livo will probably endure, no matter what. He is, after all, the first Nationals pitcher to pitch in DC in the 21st century. But it surely is nice that he's so lights-out. I just wish the national media (read: ESPN) would mention him from time to time along with all those media-star, household-name starters.

K.D. said...

Sometimes experience trumps youth. Love that he is doing well, the young pitchers can only benefit with watching and learning from him. Great post.

Tcostant said...

I hope he at least triples his salary with those "incentives". The guy is a bull.

Anonymous8 said...

I expected Livo to be 1 good game and one disaster game followed by 1 good game and a lackluster game and on and on.

McCatty should get all of his kids playing raquetball! All I can say is, Livo proved me wrong.

CapPeterson1 said...

Am just as happy that Livo and Nats are not receiving national attention. Underdog, unnoticed role is much more satisfying.

natsfan1a said...

Great piece, Mark.

That game was totally worth staying up for. Love ya, Livo. Hope you clean up on the incentives. :-)

Pete said...

Livo is the living embodiment of the phrase "Age and Treachery will overcome Young and Skill."

natsfan reduxit said...

... as I sit here in my grey cubicle, my Expos cap on my head while all around me, co-workers sport the requisite golf shirt and beige slacks, I want to direct your attention to the following story, and by doing so, give you yet one more explanation of why I am happyto be a Nats fan, but thrilled to be an Expos fan; why - in me, at least - the Expos will simply never die.

... enjoy your read:

Go Nats!!

Anonymous said...

nats insider t-shirts!

Traveler8 said...

Reduxit, good article - I hope all the Expos fans get down to see the Nats. We have had a debate running for five years about which legacy we should look to - Expos or Washington baseball, and have largely looked to the latter (which includes the old Senators, the new Senators, and the Grays) I think in large part because several of us personally remember at least one of these teams. All of the Expos fans that I have talked to resent having lost their team, but have not begrudged us - we didn't steal it, it would have been folded if not for us.

nats rising said...

As the Nats appear to be genuinely on the upsurge, let's remember that, as fans, this is not only about having a winning team to follow. It's also about following a winning team comprised of really good people whose collective attitudes stand out in stark contrast to many professional athletes. Livo plays because he loves the game. Strasburg, who could be an arrogant jerk with all the attention and money he has received, comes across as humble, respectful, trying to fit in, no entourage etc. Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham - quiet, hard working, decent people. Guzman, who could easily pout because he was asked to play multiple positions, and, by the way, one who has been regularly criticized by bloggers, behaves like a professional. An easy group of guys to get behind and support.

BerkeleyHunt said...

Just hope the FO realizes what Livo means to the franchise, and averaging 7.7 innings per start - what relief he provides the pen. While he no longer has a big salary to dump, they can't dish him off again for mediocre prospects like they did in '06, even though he's going to get hit from time to time - he's got a few years left and they need to be at Nats Park.

Steve M. said...

Not to break up the party but Livo has been so-so for years, and there is a reason for his good start to the season.

Like the spirit from the fountain of youth, Livo is better conditioned than he has been in the past, and with a better engine gives him better confidence, and he is a mind over matter type of guy.

It is hard to see watching the pitches on TV so I am looking at the results and over 4 starts he has his old magic back.

Every team that excels to better than expected levels has a catalyst and Livo is definitely the guy in 2010 so far.

Once management can figure out The Curse of Elijah Dukes in rightfield, and Zim's hamstring problems, and the couple of issues in the bullpen, this team could actually compete this year! Could this be like 1998 for Jim Riggleman----deja vous all over again?

Anonymous said...

Holy Crap!!! Livo has made me a believer. I was hoping he wouldn't sign with the Nats. The only reason I can see that this guy will lose is if he isn't feeling well. Boy, was I wrong about him. Consistency and confidence is what he's about. Hold us together Livan, help is on the way!

Steve M. said...

Anonymous at 12:09 - or lose because the pitcher on the other team was Ubaldo Jimenez!

Anonymous said...

I love this guy. I do.

The Nats, with vets like Livan and Pudge, are starting to remind me of the Over the Hill Gang in 1972. NFC champions.

Look at Butler. Look at GMU. We love sports because of the magical, incredible things that happen in sports. The 2010 Nats might be one of those beautiful things.

doug said...

Just a thought - I'm as thrilled as anybody about the excellent performances Livo has given us so far. But, a lot was said when we brought him in that he was a strong "first half" pitcher - does anybody foresee his success continuing throughout the whole season?

Obviously coming into the season in better shape will have an impact on that, but all I can say is I truly hope so... what do you guys think?

Anonymous said...

With a career BABIP of .310 (currently around .180) stat-heads would contend he will regress back to his career averages at some point. His velocity is roughly the same, but he is getting a lot more strikeouts on his sliders and curves. The Nats as a whole are playing better defense as well. My guess is he is going to get shelled at some point, but he has become the anchor of the pitching staff and a good example for the rest of the guys. Here's hoping he keeps it up long enough for the young guns to come up.


Jeeves said...

I enjoyed your article, reduxit. I too had followed the Expos from the beginning, shared the disappointments and thrills. I was a Quebecer, now a P.E. Islander who is an avid Nat's fan.
And please don't mention 1994--it's too heartbreaking.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what Nats Rising said -- the personal characteristics of many team members are great. That's important for the adults watching, and caring, but also for the kids. Baseball is a great way to learn about life and these guys make you proud.

natscan reduxit said...

Hi Jeeves, and please don't say '94 again, or Rick Monday ... ever.

Hi Traveler8, and like the guy in the story said, Expos' fans hold no grudges against Washington at all, just Loria for his carpet-bagger shenanigans, and MLB for the way they shut us down. Like the writer, I'm glad the team was able to stay alive until it became the Nats, and I'm happy to be able to continue to follow the team, now in DC.

Go Nats!!

Post a Comment