On August 30, 2011 Livan Hernandez threw the 50,000th pitch of his 16-year MLB career to Atlanta Braves' pitcher Jair Jurrjens. The veteran right-hander was aware the milestone pitch was approaching, and as he explained to Washington Post Nats beat writer Adam Kilgore after the game, he'd promised teammates he'd throw one of his trademark slow benders for the 50,000th pitch. He did. Dropping a 68 mph curve on the unsuspecting opposing pitcher, who connected with it but hit a weak groundout.
Hernandez threw his first MLB pitch on September 24, 1996. He threw it to another Brave, catcher Javy Lopez. The one-time Florida Marlins' starter who'd signed as an amateur free agent in 1996 and helped lead them to the World Series in '97, was traded to the San Francisco Giants in 1999...
The Montreal Expos acquired a 28-year-old Hernandez from the Giants along with bench bat/third baseman/catcher Edwards Guzman in a March 24, 2003 trade sent RHP Jim Brower and a PTBNL (LHP Matt Blank) to San Francisco. The first pitch the 6'2'', 245lb right-hander threw for the franchise that would two years later become the Washington Nationals came on April 6, 2003 in an 8-5 win over the New York Mets. Hernandez would win 15 games that season, leading the league in complete games (with eight) and innings pitched with 233.1 over 33 starts. Two years later, he'd throw the first pitch for the Washington Nationals (in Philadelphia) in the first game the rechristened organization played upon baseball's return to the nation's capital on April 4, 2005.
What was likely the last pitch of Hernandez's career with the Montreal/Washington franchise came this past September 4th in a 6-3 loss to New York. Mets' outfielder Jason Bay smoked that last pitch for a single and loaded the bases, chasing Hernandez from the game with the scored tied at 3-3 in Nationals Park. All three runners Hernandez let on would score and he'd take the loss, blowing an opportunity to end his time with the franchise as a .500 pitcher.
Livan ended his seventh season with the Expos/Nationals (8-13) with a 4.46 ERA, 3.96 FIP, 46 walks (2.36 BB/9) and 99 K's (5.08 K/9) in 29 starts and 175.1 IP. In 197 starts for Montreal/Washington, Hernandez was (70-72) with a 3.98 ERA, 23 complete games, four shutouts, 402 walks (2.75 BB/9) and 804 K's (5.49 K/9) in 1317.0 IP.
"He's just a gamer," Nats' skipper Davey Johnson said after Hernandez's final start, "He's a professional, good athlete, makes everything kind of look easy, where [for] most of us it's hard, fielding his position [he's] almost non-chalant. He's just really good at it and he really knows how to pitch." Johnson asked Hernandez to step aside after that final start, explaining that the right-hander had had, "an unbelievable career" in a "highly competitive business," but the time had come for the next wave of Nats' pitchers to show what they could do.
The September 4th start for Washington was Hernandez's 474th consecutive start. Every time his turn in the rotation had come around for 16 years, Hernandez had taken the hill. His final season in the nation's capital was not without controversy. Reports emerged of his involvement in a federal investigation. It wasn't the pitcher's first run-in with the law, there are assault charges in his past and some reports of questionable clubhouse conduct emerged last year in a Wall Street Journal article. This past year's allegations of ties to a "drug kingpin" cast a pall over the right-hander's final year in Washington, and tarnished his image in the eyes of many who'd admired his athletic abilities over the course of his career. It's easy to judge the pitcher's actions harshly, harder to contemplate the life he's led since defecting from his home country and leaving his family when he was just 20 years old.
Hernandez got by on guile and an ability to avoid hitter's bats late in his career when the velocity was gone. He threw the first pitch in Washington Nationals' history, was the Nats' Opening Day starter in 2006 when Washington took on the Atlanta Braves on April 3rd, and once again took the hill in Nats Park for the season opener this past March 31st in a 2-0 loss to Atlanta. The Nationals hinted earlier this winter that the right-hander would not return. Just when it was beginning to look like his career might have finally reached its end, the Houston Astros announced Tuesday night that they'd signed the pitcher to a minor league deal. Can he earn a spot in the Astros' rotation and return for a 17th season? Would you bet against Livan Hernandez?