04/02/2002 9:49 pm ET
Hernandez answers critics with solid opener
Pitcher holds Dodgers in check, helps with bat
By Josh Rawitch / MLB.com
LOS ANGELES -- Headlines across America on Wednesday will all rave about Barry Bonds' monstrous Opening Day numbers. Pundits will track his home run pace (so what if it's 324?), and they'll talk about how he didn't hit his second homer last year until his ninth game.
But the truth is, that's not the story.
The Giants expect Bonds to put up these numbers, even more so after last season's record-breaking campaign.
The story on Tuesday afternoon at Dodger Stadium was Livan Hernandez.
The Giants didn't know what to expect of him. After a disappointing 2001 season in which he lost more games than he won for the third time in five full seasons, he dropped more than 20 pounds in the offseason, impressing the organization.
But then he went out and gave up nearly two hits an inning in seven Cactus League outings, at times being mistaken for a batting-practice pitcher.
"Sure it bothered me," said his manager, Dusty Baker, before Tuesday's game. "But there's not a whole lot you can do about it."
So Baker stuck with Hernandez, who has opened each of the past two seasons for the Giants and when it finally counted, Hernandez stepped up to the plate in more ways than one.
The right-hander nearly out-hit the Dodgers by himself during an impressive eight-inning stint, singling twice off Kevin Brown while holding Los Angeles to four hits and two runs.
"Everybody wants to know, 'What happened to Livan?'" said Hernandez, who earned his third career Opening Day win and lasted longer than any other Giants season-opening starter since 1988. "It was just Spring Training. ... When you go to Spring Training, you don't need to try 100 percent. You've got to get ready for the season."
Two batters into the game, it seemed like he might have still been in Arizona, allowing a leadoff single to Dave Roberts, a stolen base, a sacrifice bunt and a RBI groundout. But after a third-inning double play, he retired 14 straight batters and did so without overpowering anyone. In fact, he struck out just three, including Adrian Beltre on a curveball that had the young third baseman diving out of the box before getting punched out by home-plate umpire Tim Welke.
"In baseball, you don't need to strike out 20 people in one game," said Hernandez. "I'll take a lot of strikeouts, but when you're working like [I was today], you have a chance to win 99 percent of the time."
Baker, who joked before the game that if Hernandez didn't fare well, his critics would complain that he lost too much weight, stuck with his workhorse through 122 pitches -- a seemingly high total on Opening Day but six less than Randy Johnson threw for the Diamondbacks on Monday. But that's because he's come to know what to expect from Hernandez.
"He's the kind of guy, if he can stay there until he gets between 100 and 130 pitches, that's when he's usually at his sharpest," said Baker. "A lot of runs helps, too."
Most of those runs were supplied by Bonds, who nearly had three homers, settling for two when a fourth-inning blast hooked foul by a couple feet. But even baseball's all-time single-season home run king didn't think he was the story on this day.
"They got out on us early but Livo kept them in check," said Bonds. "We outscored them, but Livo won that game for us. He doesn't do well in April, and it's exciting to see him pitch well in our first game against the Dodgers."
Hernandez's history in April is about as good as the University of Maryland's in March. The right-hander was 4-13 with a 6.03 ERA in the season's first month including a putrid 1-4 and 7.83 mark last season.
But like the Terrapins on Monday night, when the game was over, Hernandez was the one with the last laugh.
"I know that a lot of people say that Livan is struggling, but I don't care," he said. "I don't care if somebody's talking about me. If [other teams] talk about me, in my mind I say, they're going to forget about me."
OPENING DAY JITTERS: Even Bonds admitted he had the usual Opening Day jitters Tuesday, which makes you wonder what some of his teammates were thinking.
Damon Minor, Kurt Ainsworth, Yorvit Torrealba and Ryan Jensen are all on their first Opening Day roster, giving them their first chance to witness a big-league opener from the dugout.
"For me, it's like a dream come true," said Torrealba. "I was probably nervous in my first Major League at-bat last year but not anymore. I feel good and I'm just waiting for the bell to ring."
Ainsworth was particularly excited because of Tuesday's opponent and the pitcher on the mound.
"Especially with the Giants-Dodgers rivalry, it's exciting to be out there with Kevin Brown throwing against these guys," he said. "I try to learn from everybody, no matter who it is. Even if I don't throw like him, I try to pick up something from every pitcher I watch."
While Ainsworth is excited that his first big league start will come at home Saturday, Jensen doesn't much care where his first outing of the season takes place.
"I think that the first Opening Day start for me anywhere would be pretty exciting," said Jensen, who will oppose Odalis Perez on Thursday at Dodger Stadium. "If it's on the road or at home, I don't really care, as long as I'm here."
Which is exactly what Damon Minor was thinking. After six seasons in the minor leagues, he finally starts this year on the big-league club.
"It's a good feeling because I've been playing minor-league baseball for a while and finally getting a chance to make the club is a big thrill," he said.
But that doesn't mean he or any of the other Opening Day "rookies" were going to be in awe of a pregame ceremony that included a military flyover and the national anthem being sung by music legend Patti La Belle.
"Once the game is getting around, you're pretty much locked in the game," said Minor. "But it's a good thrill to play in front of this many people and be a part of it."
Josh Rawitch covers the Giants for MLB.com and can be reached at email@example.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.