10/07/2002 01:32 am ET
Faith in Livan pays off
Going with Hernandez in do-or-die spot 'was so Dusty'
SAN FRANCISCO -- Dusty Baker did it on Opening Day. More important than that, he did it on what could have been Closing Day.
When almost nobody else in the general vicinity of Pacific Bell Park would have done the same and when there were Giants fans by the thousands shaking their fists to the sky at the mere thought of it, the Giants' manager put his faith in Livan Hernandez.
On Sunday night, Hernandez rewarded that faith with yet another brilliant postseason start in the most important game of the Giants' season. Well, at least the most important game until Monday's deciding NLDS Game 5 in Atlanta, which was made possible in large part by Hernandez's large effort in San Francisco's 8-3 Game 4 victory over the Braves.
Hernandez drew a standing ovation from the packed house as he took the mound in the ninth, and received an even louder one when Baker relieved him one out into the final frame.
Sure, "Livo" wanted to complete the game, but he laughed as he left the mound. As he walked toward the dugout, he threw one last pitch -- a wave of the cap, circling it around to acknowledge the entire crowd.
"It's Livan," said Hernandez, now 6-0 in postseason play. "I'm not mad at nobody."
He might have reason to be, actually. He's been the subject of serious derision from some Giants fans the last two seasons, the primary target for naysayers, some of whom would have loved to have seen him run out of town.
"He's taken his lumps this year from the people," Giants first baseman J.T. Snow said. "But when we needed him most, he was there for us."
Call it Vindication Night at the ballpark. A night in the spotlight for Hernandez. Free all-you-can-eat crow for those who disparaged Hernandez along the way.
Not that they didn't have their reasons. Hernandez hasn't been throwing every game like his effort Sunday night, when he allowed three runs on eight hits in 8 1/3 innings. His 12-16 regular-season record would attest to that.
This year's uproar began in March when Hernandez was named the Opening Day starter over Russ Ortiz. Then there were times this season when Hernandez struggled as badly as he did in 2001, and there was a segment of the Giants faithful that dealt those "lumps" (read: boos) to which Snow referred. Around the July trade deadline, the rumors swirled that those fans might get their wish.
But Hernandez was there the whole way through 33 starts and finished the season with a gem -- a two-hit shutout of the Padres on Sept. 25.
And he was there in a big way for the Giants on Sunday.
"I said it yesterday, I thought he was a good man to pitch in that situation, especially at home with the crowd behind him," Giants teammate Jeff Kent said.
Added Snow: "Players that are relaxed and seem to enjoy the postseason end up having the most success. I think Livan's that way. That's his makeup."
The Braves certainly knew that. They remember the 1997 NLCS, when Hernandez took a Game 5 complete-game victory that turned the tide toward the Marlins en route to their victory in six games. In fact, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox reminisced the day before about the notoriously wide strike zone Hernandez was allowed in that game.
Cox made it clear that his comments the day before were not true about Sunday's game.
"I can guarantee you, he did not get one break all night long," Cox said. "He pitched -- good."
For the most part, Hernandez let his defense do the work for him, at times providing that himself. Wholly underrated for his athleticism by those who see him as a doughboy, Hernandez pulled off two defensive plays not all that many pitchers make: pouncing on a Rafael Furcal bunt and finishing off a 3-6-1 double play. Hernandez also added sacrifice bunts in the two-run second inning and three-run third.
Pitching, fielding, hitting -- can't do much more right than that.
In many ways, this was about Baker's decision to go with Hernandez in the biggest game of the year.
The decision was one that was so Dusty, so true to his M.O, so typical of the way Baker has run things in his decade in charge of the Giants.
This is a man who sticks with his guys, sometimes to a fault, sometimes to the point of brilliance, like Sunday.
The decision to go with Hernandez was so Dusty that it would have been the fitting move even if Hernandez had gotten blown out, the Giants had lost and -- taking it to the ultimate extreme -- this would have been the last game Baker ever managed for the Giants.
Baker entered the season with Hernandez on the hill. He was prepared to exit that way. That's Dusty.
Predictably, Baker stuck to his guns right up to the hours before the game, when he was asked if he'd considered pitching Russ Ortiz on short rest in this do-or-die game.
"No, today was Livan's day," Baker said.
Indeed it was.
And now the Giants live to see another day.
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.