Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Unemployed in February, Livan Hernandez is now 3-1 with an 0.87 ERA.
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."