Facing Nats a strange feeling for Livan Hernandez

KISSIMMEE, Fla. - As much as he wanted to return to the Nationals, Livan Hernandez knew he’d be pitching elsewhere in 2012. That destination, unknown when he had an end-of-season meeting with manager Davey Johnson, wound up being Houston, and the soft-tossing right-hander made his Astros debut by pitching two scoreless innings against his old mates Saturday.

The night before he took the mound at Osceola County Stadium, Hernandez said he received playful text messages from the Nationals’ Michael Morse, warning him that his old friends were eager to whack away at his usual array of tantalizingly slow stuff. Hernandez was disappointed that Morse didn’t make the trip from Viera, Fla., and admitted it was odd facing a team he wanted to be pitching for this season.

“It’s nice to hear about friends and it’s tough to face them,” said Hernandez, who yielded three hits and struck out two. “But everybody got to do their job. We’re still friends, whatever’s happening on the field. ... It’s tough. It’s not easy to face friends and for the first time.”

The uniform may have changed, but Hernandez’s role hasn’t. Just like he was with the Nationals, Hernandez is cast as a mentor to a rotation short on veteran leadership.

“It’s what I do over there: try to help whoever needs some help and try to get better, (help the) young guys,” Hernandez said. “It’s good when people try to learn and people listen. It’s good when you got something like that (happening). I try hard last year and the year before. We worked on that with Jordan (Zimmermann) and (John) Lannan and (Stephen) Strasburg, he asked a couple of questions. It’s good to show the people what you learn and ... the way you learn it because it’s easy to get here but it’s tough to stay here for a long time.”

After spending parts of seven seasons in D.C., where he was 70-72 with a 3.98 ERA in 172 starts, Hernandez desperately wanted to return in 2012. He’d been workhorse and loyal lieutenant through the lean times, and was willing to pitch out of the bullpen if it meant being in a Nationals uniform when the team finally turned things around.

But it wasn’t meant to be.

“They don’t need me no more over there,” he said, matter-of-factly. “They signed a couple of good pitchers in Gio Gonzalez and (Edwin) Jackson. I made the decision to go somewhere else.”

But he still made a case for his return, even if the Nationals decided to go in a different direction.

“I know that wasn’t going to happen,” Hernandez said. “I prepared for that. I’m going home and play golf and I don’t think I got a chance to come back to Washington last year. But I know that.”

He’d still like to return once his playing days are over, if the Nationals are willing to let him impart his vast knowledge with their young pitchers. Hernandez can still befuddle even the best hitters - the slow stuff he threw top prospect Bryce Harper on the first pitch of his first at-bat, a curve on which Harper flailed and missed is proof enough. Harper, however, did manage to ground a sharp single to right later in the at-bat.

But for now, Hernandez has work to do with the Astros, where the minor league deal he signed is only a formality. He’ll be in the rotation when Houston opens its season.

And he wants to keep pitching. Maybe three more years, which would give him an even 20 in the majors. Maybe longer.

“I want to be the Jamie Moyer of right-handers,” Hernandez said.

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