Livan Hernandez will always be a fan favorite here in Washington. He threw the first pitch when baseball returned to the District in 2005. He was a big part of that year’s surprise playoff contender and later returned to revitalize his career in 2009.
So it was on Saturday afternoon when the Nationals Park crowd gave Hernandez a warm ovation as he came into the game in relief for the Milwaukee Brewers with the bases loaded and his team already down 3-0 to the Nats with two out in the third inning.
Hernandez escaped that jam by getting Kurt Suzuki to pop out to shallow left. Let’s just say the fourth inning didn’t go quite so well. Hernandez gave up three-run homers to former teammates and friends Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond as Washington blew the game wide open 9-0.
“I mean, I love Livo. He’s a true professional. He’s a great teammate. Had some great years here in baseball,” Nats manager Davey Johnson said. “But he’s wearing a different uniform. I had no sympathy.”
Johnson said that his team had a distinct advantage. As infielders, Zimmerman and Desmond know Hernandez’s patterns as well as anyone could. They know what he throws when he’s in trouble. They know his basic plan for every hitter.
“Slow hook, high fastball, slider, when he’s coming in,” Johnson said. “Any time you play behind somebody, you know what they’re going to throw, because you live it. And anywhere I ever went, and I faced guys I played behind, I wore ‘em out.”
Johnson’s confidence is kind of infectious since, you know, he hasn’t actually played a game in almost 40 years. But he smiled as he described boasting to former Baltimore teammate Jim Palmer that he was in trouble. They met in a spring training game in New Orleans, Johnson made his boast and then “hit one over the light tower.”
No way to tell if this is a fisherman’s tall tale or not unless we get Palmer’s recollection of the play – if you’ve ever watched Orioles games on MASN you know he’d remember if it happened. But Johnson said Desmond had a similar feel. He knew Hernandez would pitch him away. So he used that information to knock a home run to right-center.
“Livo’s a pitcher, though. He knows that I know him,” Desmond said. So was this a cat-and-mouse game between two former teammates? “I don’t know. You would think, yeah. But like I said, he’s a pitcher, and he’s been in the league a long time. He made a good pitch, I made a good swing”
Desmond was reluctant to throw his former teammate under the bus. Hernandez is 37 now and the wily veteran may finally be reaching the end. He began the year in spring training with the Houston Astros, was cut by that team – the majors’ worst in 2012 – signed with the Atlanta Braves and later ended up with the Brewers. His ERA after Saturday’s debacle is now 5.81. Time may be running short on one of the game’s great characters.
“Livo obviously when he was here was a great teammate. He took me under his wing and we had a lot of talks about pitching and his philosophies and kind of where his head was at,” Desmond said. “When I was up there, I was just trying to think along with him. I don’t really have that killer instinct, where I like to beat up on my friends. So I don’t necessarily feel bad, but it’s unfortunate he had to take the hit there.”
Added Zimmerman: ”I’ve faced [Hernandez] plenty of times before. We’re friends and we’ll always be friends, but he’s not my friend when he’s pitching and I think he would probably say the same thing about me.”
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