WASHINGTON - He has always had one of baseball's smoothest, most efficient deliveries, and his arm, at times, might as well have been made out of rubber. And when Livan Hernandez stood on the mound, his right hand dangling by his hip, he looked every bit like an Old West gunslinger.
But for whatever reason, greatness, at least the sustained variety, has eluded him during his career. At least until this season, anyway. Hernandez pitched 7 1/3 solid innings for the Nationals last night, giving up only two runs, helping his team defeat the Toronto Blue Jays, 5-2, in front of 39,881 at RFK Stadium.
The victory raised Hernandez's record to 11-2. . And though injuries and inconsistency derailed some of his initial promise, Hernandez has perhaps been the biggest surprise on a team full of them this year.
"I knew from spring training that it was going to be different this year," said Hernandez, who threw 117 pitches, 72 for strikes, and had command of his curveball. "I'm feeling good, and when you're pitching good and the team is hitting, you're going to win a lot of ballgames."
Few teams have been winning as many ballgames at home as the Nationals have this year, and despite the fact that they play in a converted football stadium that has seen better days. The victory was the 12th straight home win for Washington (44-30), which pushed its record to 26-9 at RFK Stadium, best in the National League. It also allowed the club to remain in first place by four games over the Atlanta Braves, a 5-4 winner over the Orioles.
Hernandez, who got a standing ovation when he left with two runners on in the eighth inning, wasn't overpowering or outstanding - he gave up seven hits, walked three, hit two batters and threw a wild pitch - but much like his team, it was good enough to win.
"We seem to get hits and make plays when it matters the most," said Chad Cordero, who came on in the eighth and pitched 1 1/3 innings for his major league-leading 25th save. "That's a pretty great thing."
Hernandez, who trails the Florida Marlins' Dontrelle Willis (12-2) and the Chicago White Sox's Jon Garland (12-2) for the most wins in the major leagues, worked out of early jams, and Washington's bats answered by scoring two runs in the first and third innings to take a 4-0 lead off Blue Jays starter Ted Lilly.
Lilly, who earlier this season gave up just one run in six innings against Washington, struggled early and was gone after just four innings. Brad Wilkerson led off the bottom of the first with a walk and scored on a single by Nick Johnson, and Marlon Byrd made it 2-0 in the first with an RBI single.
Even though Byrd finished with two hits and two RBIs, his biggest contribution probably came on defense. Hernandez got himself into another bind fourth inning, giving back-to-back singles to Vernon Wells and Shea Hillenbrand. The next batter, Eric Hinske, lifted a soft line drive off the end of his bat that looked like it would drop in for a hit, possibly for extra bases.
But Byrd was tracking the ball all the way, and the ball landed softly in his glove just as he dived facefirst, fully extended to the turf.
The Blue Jays pulled within 4-2 in the eighth thanks to an RBI single by Gregg Zaun and an RBI by Alex Rios on a fielder's choice, but Cordero came on to stop the rally, getting Orlando Hudson to fly out to end the inning.