These are the kinds of games that prove why the Nationals had no qualms about giving Livan Hernandez a contract extension for the 2011 season, why they see a pitcher they brought back on a minor-league contract before this year as now being a sure thing. Hernandez has his hiccups, yes, but he's one of the most reliable commodities in baseball. And on nights like Tuesday, he can still give the Nationals something no one else on their staff can.
The Nationals' 6-0 win over the Braves showcased Hernandez at his finest, nipping corners of the plate with mid-80s fastballs, pulling the ripcord on his sharp-breaking curveball and keeping talented young hitters confused all night. He allowed five hits, and no runs, in eight innings, striking out six batters. He became the first Nationals pitcher to win 10 games since Tim Redding did it in 2008. And just for good measure, he went 2-for-4 with two RBI, hitting his 10th career homer in the fourth inning.
Had the Nationals not scored another run, Hernandez's homer would have been enough. It was complete mastery, a throwback display of self-reliance from a pitcher who's become the Nationals' rock.
Hernandez, who signed a $1 million contract for next season, has remade his career this season, coming to spring training in his best shape in years and giving the Nationals a steady presence in a year where they haven't had another one in their rotation. He's mentored young pitchers, started on short rest, offered to pitch out of the bullpen and led the rotation in wins, innings, strikeouts, WHIP and ERA.
The 35-year-old had hit a late-season lull, posting only one quality start in his last five outings. Returning to Turner Field, where he'd held the Braves to two runs in seven innings last month, Hernandez was even better this time. Had he not thrown 118 pitches by the ninth inning, he might have gotten a chance to finish his second complete-game shutout of the year.
As it was, Hernandez watched Sean Burnett close out the Braves in the ninth, officially ending a six-game losing streak with three strikeouts. With one less inning than he might have liked, though, Hernandez's brilliance was no less evident. The Nationals needed to stop a losing streak, and to do it, they turned to the pitcher who's proven his worth multiple times over.