NEW YORK -- After a week's worth of shaky starts, high pitch counts and early exits, an old friend stepped to the mound today at Citi Field and showed the rest of the Nationals' rotation how it's done.
Livan Hernandez, that crafty, big right-hander who once held the title of Nationals staff ace, put down the hammer today. He tossed seven innings of scoreless ball, needed only 88 pitches to do it and showed his teammates first-hand what it takes to win at the big-league level, leading Washington to a 5-2 victory over the Mets.
"That's what you're supposed to do, just what he did," manager Jim Riggleman said. "And I'm sure some of our guys took notice."
Riggleman can only hope the rest of his pitching staff was paying attention to the 35-year-old. Hernandez may not have better stuff than Garrett Mock, Jason Marquis, John Lannan and Craig Stammen, but the guy sure does understand how to pitch.
And as we've seen already in this young season, that counts just as much (if not more) than everything else.
As outfielder Willie Harris put it: "Livo made a statement."
And because of that statement, the Nationals left town this evening with a 3-3 record, a full game better than the Mets. What's the big deal about that? This represents the first time the Nats have been in sole possession of anything other than last place in the NL East since April 6, 2008.
Baby steps, folks. Baby steps.
The Washington club that boarded three buses bound for Philadelphia is hardly a juggernaut. The chance of maintaining a .500 record much longer is slim, not with as many holes as remain on this roster.
But only one week into the 2010 season, the Nationals are showing signs of actual progress. They're playing better defense than they did a year ago. They're getting better relief pitching than they did a year ago. They're pouncing on opposing pitchers more than they did a year ago.
And they're coming together as a team more than they did a year ago.
You saw that on a couple of occasions during today's game, including in the first inning when Josh Willingham smoked a ball off the wall in deep left-center. Originally ruled a triple (with Willingham getting tagged out at the plate following a comedy of collisions and errant throws) members of the Nationals immediately argued it should have been a home run.
Ryan Zimmerman, unable to play with a tight hamstring and watching the game on TV from the clubhouse, came running down the tunnel to the dugout railing and started screaming and motioning that it was a home run.
"I just saw it hit off a wall. It never occurred to me that it was a home run," Willingham said. "It didn't until I got to the dugout and people were like: 'That's a home run!' Then a couple of guys came out from in [the clubhouse] and said it hit on the other side of the orange line. It was a nice little surprise."
Sure enough, after a video review of the play, the umpiring crew reversed the call and gave Willingham his grand slam. Josh was credited with all four RBI, and he added a fifth two innings later, but perhaps he should have presented one to Zimmerman as a thank-you present.
By the time the ninth inning rolled around, with the Nats up 5-2 and looking comfortable, they came together once again when Harris was plunked on the elbow by Francisco Rodriguez and had words with the Mets closer. Harris, who made the game-saving catch in left field Saturday, said he didn't think Rodriguez tried to hit him on purpose. K-Rod, though, heard Harris curse out of frustration that he had just been plunked and thought it was directed at him.
So the war of words ensued, and before you knew it, both benches and bullpens emptied.
Asked if he was surprised by Rodriguez's reaction, Harris said: "Yeah. I mean, one thing about it, if you're going to chirp, just go ahead and fight. I ain't with all the talking. Like I said, I didn't direct anything towards him, and he said what he said to me, and that's why I said it back to him. It's a game. You're going to get hit. He's a man. I'm a man. If you've got a problem with me, do what you've got to do. That's all there is to it."
Rodriguez said he hoped Harris didn't think the plunking was on purpose.
"I hope not," he said. "That's the last thing I want to do in that situation. You know, they've got a lot of hitters diving out there on the plate. Most of the time I go away. I was trying to make a pitch inside, not make them feel too comfortable in the plate. They didn't seem to get upset kind of like that. But I've got to do my job. They're not going to take that away from me. I'm going to keep pitching inside. And if I hit 'em, I hit 'em. I didn't do anything on purpose."
Whatever the case, the entire Nationals roster immediately came to Harris' aide.
"That's what teams do," Harris said. "We're going to stick together. Their guys are going to stick together. That's just how it goes. I'm here for the Nationals. They're here for their team. We're here to win. They're here to win."
And Hernandez was here to win. From the moment the right-hander took the mound, he made it clear he was going to churn out the best start by a Nationals pitcher this season. He did just that, and then some.
No one else on the staff had pitched more than five innings. Hernandez went seven. If this had been May or June, he probably could have gone more, but at this early stage of the year he felt a bit gassed and told Riggleman he wanted out after the seventh.
"I can go and pitch, because I like pitching," he said. "But I don't want to be a hero on my first day back."
Sorry to inform you this, Livo, but seven shutout innings today qualified you for hero status.