Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Despite a stiff neck, Livan Hernandez tossed four scoreless innings today.
"I feel very good," he said. "I'm ready to go to the season and Opening Day."
It would take a lot more than a stiff neck to keep Livo from taking the ball against the Braves at Nationals Park. This will be the ninth time he's started on Opening Day -- amazingly, that ties him with Roy Halladay for tops among all active pitchers -- but this one might be the most significant yet for the 36-year-old.
"I've got a couple on my shoulders already," he said. "But this one is special because I don't know if it's going to be the last one."
What's that? Livan Hernandez considering retirement?
Not so fast. Livo insists he's got four more good years in him, and he'd love for them all to come in a Nationals uniform. Whether they do or not, though, he knows he won't be getting the call on Opening Day anymore. Not with a certain flame-throwing phenom set to return from Tommy John surgery.
But as Hernandez put it: "Sometimes you play golf and birdie doesn't win the hole."
The Nationals will happily take plenty more birdies from Livo, who metaphorically stuck a 7-iron to within 6 inches during today's start against the Astros. Despite being limited to four innings as a precaution due to the stiff neck, he didn't allow a run, surrendered just one hit and a walk and looked comfortable as ever out there.
It was Hernandez's second straight solid outing and lowered his spring ERA to 3.60. Historically, the big guy hasn't pitched well in spring training, but he was very good last spring and he's been good again this spring.
Actually, the entire Nationals pitching staff has been quite good over the last week. With today's 10-0 whitewashing of the Astros, Washington secured its fifth straight victory. During that span, the staff has allowed a total of seven runs.
"We've won five games in a row, and it doesn't escape you that we've averaged [giving up] about two runs or less in those five games," Jim Riggleman said. "As much as you get excited about guys playing good and hitting, it's pitching. We've pitched good five days in a row, and we've won five games."
You always have to look at Grapefruit League stats with a grain of salt, but most people in the game do believe strong performances during the final week of March are a good sign of things to come.
"Yeah, you want to see guys start to get their game face on," pitching coach Steve McCatty said, adding: "This is the time to do it. You want to finish up strong, absolutely."
In that regard, the Nationals' bullpen has looked particularly strong over the last few days. During that span, the eighth relievers still in the running for jobs (Drew Storen, Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard, Doug Slaten, Todd Coffey, Chad Gaudin, Brian Broderick and Collin Balester) have pitched 19 innings, allowing two runs and nine hits. And both of those runs came off Coffey in the ninth inning Thursday against the Tigers.
That hot streak coincides with a meeting McCatty had with the entire staff, in which he instructed them to stop feeling sorry for themselves every time they gave up a hit. "Get the ball and throw it," he said.
The motivational speech has apparently worked.
"They've taken it to heart," McCatty said. "It's been good to watch. They're going about their business the right way."
The guy who started today always goes about his business the right way. And there's little question he'll do the same Thursday when he gets the ball on Opening Day for the ninth time, perhaps savoring this experience a little more than he has in the past.
"It's very nice they give me the honor of pitching the first game of the season," Hernandez said. "I've got a chance to win that day. I'm really happy. All my friends are coming to the game. It will be very nice."