PITTSBURGH - In his first game in the majors, on Sept. 24, 1996, Livan Hernandez came out of the bullpen. He took the ball for the Florida Marlins in the sixth inning, overcame two hits and two walks to get through three shutout innings in a 12-1 win over the Atlanta Braves, and didn’t pitch again the rest of the season.
He still hasn’t made another relief appearance since.
Every other time he’s pitched in a major league game, Hernandez has done so as a starting pitcher. He’s made 449 consecutive starts, never missing a game, and is scheduled to make No. 450 tonight.
Hernandez is the active leader in consecutive starts, and only Boston’s Tim Wakefield is close. But he’s pitched in relief, as well, so his streak only applies to starts he was scheduled to make. There’s never been a break like that for Hernandez, and he’s taken the ball every time he’s been asked to do it.
“it does surprise me, because 450, that’s unbelievable,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “Guys get somewhere around 30 or 32 a year, so 10 years would be 320 - my Frostburg State education, I’ve got that. That’s 320, and you’re still 130 short of 450. It’s amazing”
The 36-year-old pitcher has become something of a throwback in the game, often throwing bullpen sessions of more than 100 pitches between starts and getting hitters out later in his career without a fastball that even gets close to 90 mph. He preaches to young pitchers about the importance of throwing more often between starts, and says the same thing to pitching coach Steve McCatty.
“He pitches to contact,” said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who managed Hernandez in the second half of 2008 with the Rockies. “He challenges adrenaline and discipline as much as anything. He’s not going to give in in counts. He tries to get hitters off their back sides and on their front foot.”
There have been times in his career where he’s been wildly ineffective - he pitched for five teams between 2007-09, when a balky knee hurt his delivery. But he’s kept himself employed through the last 14 years, playing his durability as a kind of trade that’s made him marketable each season, and he’ll hit a milestone tonight.
“The guy has never missed a start,” Riggleman said. “That kind of rolls off your tongue, in one ear, out the other, whatever, but if you really think about that, who else has done that? I don’t know if anybody’s gone 450 times without missing a start. I don’t know who did it ever - Cy Young, maybe, or somebody.”
Said Hurdle: “There is no doubt he’s a smart guy, No. 1. “He’s a survivor, No. 2.”