The Nationals’ old guard is still kicking

VIERA, Fla. - The deals the Nationals gave Ivan Rodriguez and Livan Hernandez before last season were two of those contracts that make baseball people chuckle, in a good-thing-that’s-not-us kind of way.

Rodriguez got a two-year, $6 million deal at the 2009 Winter Meetings, with the Nationals saying they wanted a veteran catcher. The future Hall of Famer was at the top of their list and a multiyear deal is what it took to sign him. And though Hernandez only got a minor league deal, it took the Nationals until February to give it to him, after they’d signed him at the end of 2009 and let his contract lapse while they tried to build a younger rotation.

But all criticism aside, both players found themselves in bigger roles last year than anyone expected; Rodriguez was hitting .340 as late as June 16, and became a stabilizing force for a shaky pitching staff. Hernandez not only made the rotation, he posted his best season in five years and ended 2010 as the ace of the staff.

Both players are back this season, and neither one looks like they’re going away.

Hernandez, who got a one-year extension from the Nationals last August, is in line to be the team’s opening day starter this year. He feels he is fully beyond the knee problems that had dogged him a couple years ago, and thinks he might be able to throw a little harder than he has in the past.

“Last year was a special year for me. I made a great comeback and pitched good like I did before,” Hernandez said. “This year is a new year, and I’ll try to do the same or better.”

Rodriguez said he added three or four pounds of muscle in the offseason, riding a bicycle less and trying to lift weights more often in hopes the extra bulk would help him hold up later in the season. He played 111 games last year, and while he’ll likely cede some playing time to Jesus Flores or Wilson Ramos, Rodriguez is saying the right things.

“We get along well,” Rodriguez said. “They respect me a lot. I respect them very much. Those two guys, Flores and Ramos, we’re going to work hard. We’re going to work a lot. I’m going to talk to them a lot in spring training. I’m that kind of person, I’m that kind of player that, I want other people to do great. I want (Flores) to do good. I want him to stay healthy. I want those two guys to stay healthy. That’s the main thing.”

But he also didn’t mince words about how much he feels he has left.

“I’m feeling great. I still feel like I can play this game for (a long time),” Rodriguez said. “I’m always ready to contribute.”