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04/01/08 12:54 AM ET
Slow and steady, Hernandez delivers
New Twins hurler frustrates Angels on Opening Night
By Kelly Thesier / MLB.com
MINNEAPOLIS -- There were plenty of question marks surrounding Livan Hernandez heading into his Opening Night start with the Twins. The Twins had gotten a glimpse of the 33-year-old pitcher during Spring Training. But following a series of up-and-down starts there, it was unclear just which version of the right-hander would show up in Monday against the Angels. Still, Hernandez kept saying that he never had good springs and once the season got under way, the Twins would see just the type of arm they got. And when that bell rang on Monday, the veteran pitcher with 10-plus years of big league experience finally emerged in full form. Hernandez pitched seven innings, allowing just two runs on seven hits, in the Twins' 3-2 Opening Night win over the Angels. "Livan was fantastic," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It was a pleasure to watch him pitch. I think what you saw was a veteran who really knows how to pitch and can handle the atmosphere of Opening Day. And man, he really stepped up." It was a textbook type outing for the right-hander, who threw just 84 pitches over his seven innings. He didn't walk a batter and struck out one, but mostly struck to his plan of getting outs the old-fashioned way -- by using his defense. Without a pitch that topped 85 mph, Hernandez (1-0) stopped an aggressive-hitting Angels team by mixing up his pitches and changing speeds effectively. That included using a slow, Bugs Bunny type curveball that crossed the plate around 60 mph and led to some easy ground-ball outs. "He is amazing with how he changes speeds," closer Joe Nathan said. "There is not a lot of people in this game that know how to comfortably change the speed of a ball 30 mph and throw it where you want it. It's not an easy thing to do. So for him to do that well and keep hitters off balance, some of the best hitters in the game, that's impressive." In a night where most of the focus was on Torii Hunter's return to the Metrodome, Hernandez helped to effectively shut down the former Twins center fielder. Hunter was 0-for-3 in his three plate appearances against the right-hander, although Hernandez said that Hunter just missed a few balls he left up and his defense helped on some other hard hit balls. Hernandez's veteran presence was on display as well. The Twins have three new infielders trying to learn each other's tendencies, as well as those of the pitchers. So in addition to directions the infielders received from the dugout, Hernandez spent time positioning them where he felt the ball was going to go. "That gives our guys a pretty good feeling," Gardenhire said. "He understands what he's trying to do to a hitter and that says a little bit about him." Monday was a special day for Hernandez despite the fact that it was the eighth Opening Day start of his career. For him, it was more important because it was his first for the Twins and his first ever in the American League. Having spent 10 years in the National League, Hernandez had been asked many times about how he would adapt to the switch and more potent lineups. But he showed on Monday with a hot-hitting group like the Angels that he can find ways to slow them down as well. "He's a smart pitcher, in and out," Hunter said. "That's why he's still pitching, getting it done. You're going to hit him, but it's hard to hit him hard. ... First game, guys are a little amped up -- I know I was, and I've been playing a long time. He's not an easy guy to face in a situation like that." The newly rebuilt Twins offense wasn't of much support for Hernandez, but it got runs off Angels starter Jered Weaver when it counted. New center fielder Carlos Gomez sparked the lineup in the leadoff spot, scoring two runs, including the go-ahead run in the fifth inning. After Hernandez left with the tight one-run lead, the Twins bullpen came in and shut the door. Pat Neshek struck out three of the four batters he faced in the eighth and Nathan recorded the save, which included getting Hunter to strike out swinging on a slider. It wasn't exactly the way the Twins expect to win the majority of their games this season, but it's one that they'll take to start the year out right. "I hope we don't do this 162 times, or I think we'll all end up with heart attacks," Nathan said. "I think our lineup is going to score runs. So if [the pitchers] can continue to be consistent and use our defense like we always do, we are going to win ballgames."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.