10/05/2002 6:11 pm ET
Braves meet Hernandez five years after NLCS gem
By Thomas Harding / MLB.com
SAN FRANCISCO -- The tone in the voice of Giants pitcher Livan Hernandez was undeniable.
And it was understandable. He was hearing -- not for the first time -- that perhaps he didn't deserve all the credit for one one of his career highlights: his winning performance in Game 5 of the 1997 National League Championship Series.
Hernandez will take the mound against the team that has made that on-again, off-again claim for five years, the Atlanta Braves, Sunday in Game 4 of the NL Division Series at Pacific Bell Park. But the right-hander has much more to think about than an old argument. He will be trying to keep the Giants' season alive and force a decisive fifth game Monday in Atlanta.
The history between Hernandez and the Braves only adds intrigue.
In that fifth game of the '97 NLCS -- before Hernandez earned World Series MVP honors with the champion Florida Marlins -- Atlanta had runners at first and third base with no outs in the first inning. Hernandez then fanned Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff and Ryan Klesko to end the scoring threat. The Marlins ended up winning the game, 2-1.
To this day, Braves manager Bobby Cox seems to believe those hitters weren't Hernandez strikeout victims as much as they were victims of home plate umpire Eric Gregg.
"Unfortunately, everything he threw was called a strike and about 90 percent of them were not even close -- just one of those days where the umpire had a bad day," Cox recalled.
"I think they were looking for an excuse," Hernandez responded, who set an NLCS record with 15 strikeouts in outdueling Greg Maddux that day.
As far as Hernandez is concerned, if the Braves want to bring that day up again, he has the videotape at home. Hernandez smiles when he watches it.
"Everybody is talking about the strike zone," Hernandez said. "The strike zone, I think, was good. The umpire can miss a couple of pitches. But I'll say again, I won the game. If I don't win the game, I'm talking about the umpire."
Regardless of anyone's thoughts about the strike zone that night, the issue now is the Giants' comfort in turning to Hernandez, who was 5-0 in six starts in 1997 -- his rookie campaign and his only year of postseason experience.
If it weren't for Hernandez's strong performance in his final start -- a two-hit shutout of San Diego on Sept. 25 -- the talk would have been all about losses instead of a certain victory.
Hernandez (12-16, 4.38 ERA) nearly became the first pitcher on a playoff team to lead his league in losses. He had to win three of his final four decisions just to end the year tied with the Milwaukee duo of Glendon Rusch and Ben Sheets.
Inconsistency marked Hernandez's season. He became the first Giant with three complete-game shutouts in a season since Bud Black in 1991, but also finished in the top five in the NL in runs and hits allowed.
But that playoff history was one reason manager Dusty Baker didn't hesitate to call on him to start an important playoff game. Hernandez's struggles this season led to questions whether Baker would go with Game 1 winner Russ Ortiz on short rest.
"The fact he's 5-0 in the postseason and he pitches well at home," Baker said when asked about the reasoning behind his decision. "At the same time, it was his turn.
"We have four guys that are pretty close and equal in ability. We would much rather go with a rested Livan than somebody else on two- or three-days' rest."
Hernandez, who said he has kept himself sharp by throwing two 18-minute bullpen sessions, said he can get back to his 1997 form.
"The only difference is five years," Hernandez said. "I'm not putting a lot of pressure [on myself]. ... When you try too hard, you try to throw the ball hard, the ball doesn't go nowhere."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.