KISSIMMEE, Fla. - Livan Hernandez is done for the spring, having posted a 3.60 ERA in four major league games. He's now posted a sub-4.00 ERA in three straight springs - not bad for a guy who said he usually comes into the season off a poor exhibition showing.
Last year, his spring performance put him on the opening day roster after he'd signed a minor league deal in late February, working out in Miami and playing racquetball to get in shape before then. Hernandez came off a 2.25 spring ERA on a tear, going 3-1 with a 0.87 ERA in April and riding that strong start to his best season in six years.
He's in a more comfortable position now, pitching the season opener on a guaranteed contract instead of joining the team as the fifth starter in mid-April. But he's been no more relaxed this spring than he was last year.
This spring for Hernandez, which ended with a four-inning, one-hit start cut short by a stiff neck on Saturday, has been something of an open experiment; he's been working with catcher Ivan Rodriguez to hone his breaking pitches and throw them in new spots. At 36, he's well aware of the extra work it takes to keep his edge.
He throws more in the spring than he used to, and preaches to young pitchers about the importance of a steady workload in spring training. It runs counter to the approach many teams are using with their young pitchers these days, but it's helped Hernandez throw more than 175 innings six times since he turned 30, and he's counting on that approach again this year.
"I'm not the kind of guy to come to spring training relaxed," he said. "You come here and relax, and you've got a lot of stuff to do during the season. Any way I come here, I'm working on what I need to be ready for the season. This situation is much better than last year, but there's no more relaxed for me. I like to pitch, and I like the competition."
When Hernandez was left without a job until February last year, he said, it was partially his own fault. The Nationals had discussed a guaranteed contract for 2010 with him in September 2009, but he decided to wait and test the market. He came back to the team without a major league deal in February, needing to work his way onto the team.
That didn't happen this year; he got a one-year extension from the Nationals last August, less than two weeks after Stephen Strasburg tore his ulnar collateral ligament, and came into the spring knowing he'd be an anchor of the team's staff. He'll start his ninth opening day this week - Hernandez said his neck won't be a problem come Thursday - and he added he'd like to pitch four more years, or until he's 40.
But he doesn't expect to be starting on opening day for the Nationals once Strasburg is healthy.
"Sometimes you play golf," he said, "and birdie doesn't win the hole."