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 a 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 tossed 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 was the 11th of the season for Hernandez (11-2), and the 12th straight home win for Washington (44-30), allowing the Nationals to remain in first place by four games over Atlanta, 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, but much like the Nationals this year, he was good enough when it mattered.
Hernandez, who trails only Florida's Dontrelle Willis (12-2) for the most victories in the majors, gave up seven hits, walked three, hit two batters and threw a wild pitch. But thanks to some timely hitting by Nick Johnson and some great defense from left fielder Marlon Byrd, he got the job done, improving to 10-0 in his last 13 starts.
"I don't know why, but I knew in spring training that this year was going to be different," said Hernandez, who threw 117 pitches, 72 for strikes. "I'm feeling good, and when you're pitching good and the team is hitting, you're going to win a lot of ballgames."
Washington managed just six hits - but it was good enough. It didn't take the Nationals long to rattle Blue Jays pitcher Ted Lilly. Brad Wilkerson led off the game with a walk, and then after getting behind 1-2, Junior Spivey smacked a ground-rule double over the head of Toronto left fielder Frank Catalanotto, putting runners at first and third with no outs.
Lilly got Jose Guillen to swing at the first pitch, inducing a weak foul pop up, but the next batter, Nick Johnson, made him pay with an RBI single to left field, givingWashington a 1-0 lead.
Johnson has now reached base in 68 of Washington's 73 games this season.
After working the count full, Byrd managed to fight off and inside pitch into center field, just beyond the reach of Toronto second basemen Orlando Hudson. Spivey scored to make it 2-0
Hernandez got himself into a jam in the fourth inning, when he gave up back-to-back singles to Vernon Wells and Shea Hillenbrand. Eric Hinske lifted a soft line drive that Byrd caught as he dove face-first, fully extended to the turf, nearly an exact replica of a catch he made to end the game Friday in Washington's 3-0 win over Toronto.
Hernandez still wasn't out of it, giving up a single to Gregg Zaun to load the bases, but Alex Rios and grounded back to the mound, and Hernandez went home for the force out. Hudson then hit a slow roller to Cristian Guzman, who stepped on second to end the inning.
Washington added two more runs in the third thanks to an RBI groundout by Byrd and a RBI single by Vinny Castilla, but the Blue Jays pulled to within 4-2 in the eighth, but closer Chad Cordero came on to stop the rally, getting Hudson to pop up with runners on. Cordero pitched a scoreless ninth for his major league-leading 25th save.