Monday, August 07, 2006
ADIOS!! Mi Amigo!! Livan Hernandez
Livan Hernandez would look in for the sign from Brian Schnieder, knowing exactly what he wanted to throw, then lift his burly left leg, whirl back and heave forward the mighty toss--the batter would stand at the plate lunging forward, fooled, but trying to recoil a second time, as the looping pitch, sometimes not even reaching 60MPH would float in over the middle of the plate, and the batter would stand dumbfounded. Strike Three Called!!, Inning Over and Livan would sloooooowly walk off the mound toward the Nats 3rd base dugout, slight smile on his face, looking up, appreciatively, at the RFK faithful, now standing and applauding his just completed feat. Another opposing rally snuffed out by this great magician. Section 320 would just laugh at the absurdity of the pitch we just all saw. Livan had mindboggling stuff.
And that's why Washington DC fell in love with the BIG CUBAN. Never a more relaxed player, have I ever seen in a game. As great of a competitor that he is, you would always see LIVO talking to fans, talking to opposing players, Livan had a air about him that was enjoyable to watch. And, THE MAN COULD HIT!! Better than Guzman or Schneider on most any day.
And now, he is GONE!! Traded today to the Arizona Diamondbacks for 2 young pitching prospects. Only 31 years old, the second longest tenured Expos/Nats player (Vidro has been with the franchise the longest) Livan wanted to stay in DC, clearly stating before the July 31 trading deadline that he would prefer to remain in Washington.
"I'm a National," Hernandez said on July 23, shortly after he beat the Chicago Cubs with six decent innings in a 7-3 victory. "I'm a Washington player. I represent these colors, this city, and I want to be here for the new stadium." (Washington Post)
Livan would go on to say: "I don't want to get traded. I want to feel good in here. It's my team." Hernandez wanted to throw the very first pitch in the Nats new stadium and concluded by saying: "I've got a lot of memories. It's difficult thinking you're going to be traded one day."
But, General Manager, Jim Bowden, following the course of NEW TEAM President, Stan Kasten, to build the Nationals from the ground up, decided to unload Livan's $7 Million contract that runs through the 2007 season. Livan had strugged through the first 2/3rds of the season. Never fully recoving from off-season knee surgery, and never fully disclosing the recovery problems until late June, Livo could not push his legs with the force needed to effectively throw his arsenal of off speed pitches.
Every pitch looked the same, And it Showed BIG TIME on April 13, 2006 when, in the very first inning--Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Cliff Floyd would all hit BOMBS off Hernandez at RFK Stadium. Carlos Delgado would add another in the third.
As Livan struggled, so did the Nationals, plummeting to the Eastern Division Cellar, and never recovering to date . Pitching, the stalwart on the 2005 team, completely went away in 2006. At times, the Nationals have gone 2 complete weeks without a starter winning a game. Injuries have depleted the entire pitching staff.
And this was the way it went for Number 61, he would only win one of his first 9 starts, a 1-5 record on May 20. At times looking totally washed up, before winning 4 consecutive starts against Baltimore, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Atlanta to even his record at 5-5. Then, back and forth, good start, bad start, but over his last games leading up to the July 31 trading dealine, LIVO was beginning to look like the Livo of old. Snapping off those fabulous off speed pitches, confusing hitters at the plate, with just enough zip on his fastball to go late into each start.
But, Jim Bowden was shopping all the Nationals High Salaries. The Nats were well out of the playoff chase, and with many holes to fill. Livan and Alfonso Soriano were considered top candidates to be traded. Yet July 31st came with both players still on the 25 man roster.
As happy as Soriano was to stay in DC, LIVO was just as estatic and it showed in his last 2 starts in August, shutting down the Giants in San Francisco, giving up one run through 7 and downright STERLING yesterday in San Diego, when everything was working, striking out 7, with the Nationals unable to give him deserved run support. LIVO could feel he was once again THE MAN, pitching for the Nats.
It was conceivable to believe the Nationals Pitching Ace and Innings Eater was back, in prime form, ready to lead the staff--giving Washington Pitchers a Mentor for a few more years to come. But, it was not to be, finishing the season 9-8, 5.34 ERA and serving up 22 Home Runs for Washington.
After the trade, Livan was quoted by MLB.com: "Washington is a great town for baseball and the fans are amazing," Hernandez said. "There are a lot of great people here. My teammates are amazing." This is the type of professional that teams miss in the near future.
Livan threw the first two most important pitches in Washington's return to the Major Leagues. On April 4, 2005 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia--The Nationals first game ever, a called first strike to Jimmy Rollins. And, then tossed the very first pitch at RFK to Arizona's Craig Counsell, another called first strike, on April 14--The first Washington Home Game in over 34 years--AND THE FLASHBULBS ON THAT FIRST PITCH WERE ALMOST BLINDING!!
Hernandez would come to Love Washington, buying a place at the Ritz Carlton off 22nd/New Hampshire in the West End. Reveled in meeting the President Of the United States on Opening Night, 2005. Talked up DC wherever he went. How much he loved being here, in the Nations Capital!! Would get off to a hot start. At one point winning 10 games in a row, making the All Star Team along with Chad Cordero, running up a 12-3 record. But, as the Nationals began their 2005 second half swoon, Livan was affected as anyone on the team.
On July 20 at RFK against the Rockies, Livan gave up a late home run to Colorado's JD Closser sealing a Nats loss. After the game, Hernandez went into a tirade claiming his knee was hurting and he was 99% sure that he would have season ending surgery the next day. He also blasted some unknown Washington OFFICIALS. Both Frank Robinson and Bowden were caught completely off-guard. Regarding his anger, Hernandez said, "I've been happy [with this franchise] for three years. This is the best organization. After the season, I'm going to tell you something. Don't worry, I'm going to tell you." (MLB.com)
The very next day, Livan settled down, no surgery was taken and he completed the 2005 season, but no where near as effective as earlier in the campaign.
Loss after loss mounted, and Livan unraveled again on IRONCIALLY, August 6, 2005--exactly one year before his last game for the Nationals, AND against the Padres at RFK Stadium. Struggling mightily, Livan had given up 12 hits, 2 walks and a home run to light hitting speedster Dave Roberts. Yet, LIVO was still ahead 5-4 in the 6th when Frank Robinson came to the mound, replacing him with Joey Eishen.
Visibly upset of being removed from the game, Hernandez walked ever so slowly towards the Nats 3rd base dugout, as he reached the top step, he threw his glove into the stands, then his cap, and finally, reached down and threw his warmup jacket into the crowd behind the dugout. Livan would later try to get the glove back, but the fan who caught it wanted a KINGS RANSOM for its return. Livo told him to take a hike. And rightfully so.
Hernandez would finish the season 15-10, with only 3 second half wins. His knee was operated on right after the end of the 2005 season, and everyone expected a full recovery. But, it took Livan nearly 9 full months and was not his true self until late July, 2006.
I loved how Livan, when on his game, could get himself in trouble and, somehow, get out of it. He would many times walk a hitter, to load the bases, just so he could pitch to another hitter he felt more comfortable in recording the out. When 61 came to the plate, you could, many times, expect a good at bat. Livo swings a good stick, can hit for power, and would consistently get key RBI hits. And it was marvelous watching him run with that huge body around the bases. Always brought a smile to my face. On non-pitching days, Livo's head could always be seen leaning and looking out of the dugout, holding conversations with fans, having a good time. Enjoying the moment.
I'll never forgot on that faitful April 13 day this year when Hernandez gave up 4 homers to the Mets, when he came to bat in the bottom of the 3rd inning, he stood on deck, lazily swinging his bat, and having a lively animated conversation with some fans in the front row--laughing with them, nothing acrimonious.
Livan, along with Soriano, and Jose Guillen, have let it be known throughout baseball that WASHINGTON DC is a GREAT PLACE to play. He was a great Ambassador for our city. I wish he was still here. But, I hope even more that, not only do today's Arizona prospects help the Nationals down the line, but Stan Kasten RESIGNS LIVO for 2008, when the Nats move into their new stadium. He would still be the PERFECT MENTOR, at 33 years old, for a young staff. He would relish the opportunity. And, IT WOULD BE JUST AND FAIR!!