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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Buster Olney's thoughts on Livan

Sorry for the delay in posting, things have been busy here as the end of my college career is nearing. I don't have time today to post either, but I wanted to post the opinion of one of my favorite sports writers Buster Olney of ESPN. He had some interesting things to say about Livan Hernandez...

Maybe you prefer pure power, total domination. Maybe you loved Dwight Gooden in 1985 and Roger Clemens in the 2000 playoffs and Joel Zumaya's 101 mph fastball in 2006. But maybe you like a pitcher who works a game like Indiana Jones -- lots of tension, lots of vulnerability, a pitcher who seems to be at the mercy of circumstance, and yet at the same time possesses a lot of swagger and moxie. You cover your eyes watching this pitcher work into and out of jams, and yet somehow he seems to have a measure of control.

If this is what you like, we present Livan Hernandez, American Leaguer.

Pitching in the National League last year, Hernandez allowed 247 hits and 78 walks in 204.1 innings, including 34 home runs. He throws his fastball in the mid-80s and a breaking ball in the mid-to-low '60s. The idea that Livan Hernandez would have a chance to pitch in the bigger and badder AL seemed, on the face of it, completely absurd.

And yet he is spinning his breaking stuff and nicking the corners and getting ahead in the count and making burly hitters get themselves out with big swings. Five starts into the 2008 season, Hernandez has 11 strikeouts in 33 innings -- but he's walked just six, and has an ERA of 3.55; the Twins are 5-0 in his starts, after beating Oakland last night, in what was a no-decision for Hernandez.

And as always, Hernandez did something that reminded you of how he controls game, of what an old hand he is. In the first inning, Daric Barton slapped a single and reached second, and with Jack Cust at the plate, Hernandez and catcher Joe Mauer had a difficult time getting together on pitch selection; Hernandez glanced back at Barton and seemed impatient.

He summoned Mauer to the mound, as Twins manager Ron Gardenhire looked on with exasperation, and shortstop Nick Punto jogged into the mound; pitcher, catcher and shortstop all spoke through the webbing of their gloves.

Barton did not have a big lead, and there were two outs; he wasn't going to steal a base. And yet Hernandez wheeled and fired toward second base, toward Barton -- and Punto wasn't covering the base. Rather, the shortstop was positioned well behind Barton, in a wonderful spot if the ball ricocheted away. The throw thumped Barton right in the back.

It all seemed very strange: A pickoff play right after a mound meeting, with the shortstop not covering the base. Did Livan hit Barton on purpose, to remind him that he didn't believe in sign-stealing?

I figured the fleeting thought was absurd. And then Bert Blyleven, the Twins' broadcaster, chimed in that as a pitcher, he always thought he had a free shot at the baserunner while throwing toward the bases. Maybe the cagey Livan did plunk Barton on purpose.

It's all part of the guile that is Hernandez, who has been much better than anyone could have expected so far. Think about these numbers: Going into Tuesday's game, the Twins had more quality starts in their first 19 games of 2008 (11) than they did in 2007 (9), and their ERA is a half-run lower. And the Twins are hanging in there in the AL Central.

I missed the random pickoff moment as I was not watching the game, but I can only imagine what Bert Blyleven had to say about it.


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