The oldest battery the Nationals have ever started a game with has been together before, lumped on the same list of reasons why, pundits said, the team wouldn’t be any better this year.
Ivan Rodriguez and Livan Hernandez were reaches, unwise investments, players who were past their primes but who were being put on the field to compensate for ones who had not yet reached theirs.
All of those things written about the 38-year-old catcher and the 35-year-old pitcher could still turn out to be true. But on Saturday, they couldn’t have been more wrong.
Hernandez wasn’t a junk-tossing retread signed to a minor-league deal; he was a pitching savant commanding the ball as if it was on a yo-yo and making it dance over, under, around (and seemingly through) the bats of players either too young or too eager to discern his secrets.
And Rodriguez wasn’t a future Hall of Famer still trading on his past accomplishments. He was a guide for Hernandez, a trusted old hand who had been through everything, seen more and operated on the pitcher’s mental plane. For the first 11 games of this young season, too, he’s showed a surprising amount of pop left in his bat.
The two players got together at Nationals Park on Saturday, pitching and catching as if the Milwaukee Brewers weren’t there. On a day when the Nationals went above .500 for the first time in two years, the two veterans weren’t the reasons why this is the same tired refrain. They were the reasons why there’s something new going on.
Hernandez pitched his first complete-game shutout in nearly six years, facing just 33 batters in nine innings. Rodriguez drove in three runs with two hits, and the Nationals posted one of their most dominant victories in recent memory, rolling past the Brewers 8-0 before a crowd of 18,673.
The right-hander, throwing few pitches over 84 mph, painted every last inch of the strike zone and got the Brewers flailing at more than a few of his famous 64-mph changeups. He allowed four hits and two walks in nine innings and, after getting out of a second-inning, bases-loaded jam with a 1-2-3 double play, was barely threatened again.
“He’s been in baseball for a long time. I’ve been in baseball for a long time,” Rodriguez said. “We know what to do.”
Justin Maxwell and Ryan Zimmerman - two products of the Nationals’ 2005 draft - also starred in the win, driving in a combined five runs as part of an attack that Brewers starter Randy Wolf called an “under-the-radar lineup.” They also contributed a handful of flashy defensive plays, none more spectacular than the diving stop Zimmerman made in the ninth inning, laying out to his left to stop a Casey McGehee smash, then throwing across the diamond to beat McGehee at first.
But on Saturday, no players shone brighter than the two veterans.
Rodriguez’s signing was trumpeted by the Nationals as a hedge against Jesus Flores’ spotty health and a chance for the 25-year-old to learn from one of the game’s greats. It was derided around baseball as an unnecessary splurge, a two-year, $6 million investment in a catcher with a .280 on-base percentage last year in hopes of giving fans a recognizable name to watch.
And Hernandez, who signed with the team for his third tour in spring training, was all but assured of a rotation spot in spring training. Outside of Washington, again, the move drew snickers. If Hernandez was going to be the Nationals’ fifth starter, could the team’s young pitchers be very far along?
In the first 11 games of the season, though, neither player could have given the Nationals more. Rodriguez is hitting .419 with a 1.052 OPS, his 18 total bases second on the team. Hernandez has started the year on a 16-inning scoreless streak, pairing Saturday’s shutout with seven scoreless innings against the Mets last Sunday. He is the first Nationals starter to pitch at least seven scoreless in consecutive starts since Jason Bergmann in 2008.
“You never think it’s going to be a nine-inning shutout,” Hernandez said. “You’re not going to feel good every day. But I felt very good today.”
And if his outing on Saturday was instructive for the Nationals’ young pitchers, it was also a treat for the players behind him to watch.
“He’s not fun to face at all for hitters,” said first baseman Adam Dunn, who has a career .240 average against Hernandez. “He throws 85 miles an hour, but he can dot an i with that 85. He can put it wherever he wants. And every single pitch - slider, changeup, curveball - they all come from the same plane. He just can pitch. There’s no other way to put it.”
Dunn said it in present tense: Hernandez can pitch. And Rodriguez can still play.
“They were out there to be signed by anybody who had interest. (General manager) Mike (Rizzo) showed the most interest, and got them,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “It was a good job by Mike, but also the players themselves, to continue to work as hard as they do. Behind the scenes, those two guys are two of the harder workers on the ballclub.”