The things that brought fans to their feet as Livan Hernandez came out of the Nationals Park bullpen on Sunday - for perhaps the final time as a starter in Washington - were easy to pick out. Hernandez started the Nationals' first game on April 4, 2005, and 10 days later, he threw the first major league pitch in Washington since 1971. When the Nationals were the talk of baseball in the first half of 2005, Hernandez was their ace. He's been here for 4 1/2 of the team's seven seasons. He hasn't been spectacular, but for much of the Nationals' time in Washington, he's been theirs.
Inside the Nationals' clubhouse, though, the 36-year-old is just as revered, but for different reasons: the music he'll often blast before his starts, the barbs he'll toss after taking money from a teammate on the golf course and the advice he'll willingly dispense about pitching and professionalism.
"It's not even here. Everybody loves him," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "Guys on other teams, people in hotels that we go to. Everyone knows the style of person he is, and it's kind of contagious."
Hernandez lives much in the way he pitches - he is his own man. He does what he wants, and sometimes that leads to spectacular results. Other times, it leads to unsightly ones. But he's a character.
It might have been that, as much as anything, that led to the standing ovations for Hernandez before and during his start in the Nationals' 6-3 loss to the Mets on Sunday, as well as the plaudits from teammates after the game. Hernandez is recognizable because he's taken people on a ride, complete with 60-mph curveballs and idiosyncratic warmup routines. If that ride has come to an end in Washington, people wanted him to know they've enjoyed it.
"I can't think of a better teammate," closer Drew Storen said, "and I can't think of anybody who's more fun to watch than that guy."
Hernandez will step out of the Nationals' rotation from here, spending the rest of the year as a kind of extra coach. He'll pinch hit from time to time, and could still find his way into a game as a reliever - though manager Davey Johnson has said he won't use Hernandez in the bullpen this year. But he'll mostly be around to weigh in on matchups and give feedback to some of the young pitchers who will fill the Nationals' rotation the rest of the year.
The team is taking Hernandez out of the rotation because of those young pitchers they need to evaluate the rest of this season. They know what he is, after 16 major league seasons and 474 consecutive starts. They need to see if young arms like Tom Milone and Brad Peacock will be part of their future.
Hernandez knows it, and he understands it. It's why he's said he would come back to the Nationals as a long reliever next year, and why he's already told general manager Mike Rizzo what he would want to return. He wants to win another 26 games and get to 200 career victories, and be the winningest Cuban pitcher of all time. But he would return to Washington for a modest salary. "It's not too much," Hernandez said. "It's not something where I'll go to the bank. It's because I love this city, and I love to play here."
If he did make his last appearance in a Nationals uniform on Sunday, Hernandez left in unspectacular fashion. He started the game with a pair of scoreless innings, but got stung for three hits in the third inning, and fell apart in the sixth, allowing four runs, three of which scored after he left the game.
But Hernandez's time in Washington has always been as much about style as it has been about results. If that time is over, he's left plenty of memories in his wake.
"He's just a professional, and when you're around a professional, you want to be more like that," Desmond said. "It's been a pleasure playing with him, and hopefully next year, he's back."