With Hernandez on hill, Harper may start in opener

VIERA, Fla. - Near the end of his daily briefing with the media, Nationals manager Davey Johnson was told by reporters that ex-Nat Livan Hernandez would be starting Saturday's Grapefruit League opener against Washington for the Astros in Kissimmee, Fla.

"Livo?" Johnson said, his eyes growing wide and a grin crossing his face. "Livo's pitching that game, huh?

The manager's interest was genuine, more than just a nod to renewing acquaintances with a pitcher who spent the last two-plus seasons as a stalwart in the Nationals rotation. The soft-tossing righty's presence paves the way for top prospect Bryce Harper to start in right field Saturday.

Johnson said as much, without exactly saying so.

"That works out nice," he said. "You want to know why that works out nice? Guess. What am I looking at? What do I want to see on the ballclub that would be different than last year? I'm looking for more left-handed presence in the lineup. We were basically a right-handed lineup. So right out of the chute they're going to throw a right-hander against us?"

Johnson's stated preference is to add some left-handed punch to the lineup, and a healthy Adam LaRoche manning first base and the ascension of Harper to a starting role would fortify what has been a predominantly right-handed-hitting lineup with some much needed left-handed power.

Of course, Hernandez isn't going to be challenging Harper, or anyone else, with heat. The Nationals know he throws two speeds slow and slower and relies on guile and placement.

But it would be a challenge for Harper. Assuming, of course, he's in the lineup.

"I'd prefer it was a hard thrower," Johnsons said. "At least the curve ball will be breaking into (a left-handed hitter)."

The Astros will further play into Johnson's hand when they start lefty J.A. Happ on Saturday in the home exhibition opener at Space Coast Stadium. Pitching Happ means Johnson can rest LaRoche and start utility man Mark DeRosa at first base. Johnson wants to be able to rest LaRoche against some left-handers this season and made finding a right-handed-hitting option at first base a priority after Chris Marrero was likely lost for the first half after sustaining a torn left hamstring playing winter ball.

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