SEVENTEEN pitches into yesterday's start, Roberto Hernandez had thrown five strikes. This is not a formula for success on any kind of day, but with the outfield flags flapping so ferociously that every lifted ball made the fielders below look like a Monty Python skit, this inning had crooked number written all over it.
But then Carlos Ruiz called timeout and chugged to the mound, and three strikes later Hernandez was out of a jam and Chooch had made another convincing case for that contract he received in the offseason.
What did he say?
"Let me think about it," the affable Hernandez said afterward. "I think he said don't try to overthrow. And to keep the ball down. When I overthrow, the ball doesn't move. After that I threw every pitch the same."
It's hard to figure which was more unlikely in the Phillies' blustery series finale with the Nationals yesterday:
Roberto Hernandez pitching a shutout into the eighth inning against the team favored to win the National League East; or
Not one of the floppy-hat giveaways sailing with the other debris into the field of play.
I'm going with the floppy hats, and for this reason: Hernandez is a better pitcher against National League teams than he is against American League teams, and if anything can be gleaned from three starts over a large cluster of years, the sight of the Washington Nationals uniform seems to improve his pitching even further.
Including yesterday's 1-0 gem, Hernandez has allowed five runs in three career starts against the Nationals. But there's more. In seven starts against teams in the National League East (not including the Phillies), Hernandez is 4-2 with an earned run average of 2.12 (12 runs, 51 innings).
He is who John Lannan was supposed to be last year: A fifth starter who looks better against teams in your division and in Hernandez's case, in your league. And following a similar pattern over that span, Hernandez has pitched even better at home than on the road. This was his third start at Citizens Bank Park, and the third time he has allowed three earned runs or less.
"He's throwing the ball well," said Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg. "And he solidifies our rotation. With the other guys, he's a good complement with the stuff he has out there. He's funky out there. He's different. He gets ground balls. I like what he's doing right now."
What's not to like? Sandberg also could have mentioned what a citizen Hernandez has been in his brief tenure as a Phillie. He was pitching yesterday on long rest and short notice, told just the day before that his start had been pushed ahead from Tuesday after Cole Hamels contracted the flu.
His last start came April 25 in Arizona, and in between then and now he was summoned from the bullpen to get a batter. "If you pitch from the bullpen you have to warm up quick," he said. "It's a little bit hard. I like to start. If you give me the ball to throw from the bullpen, I can't control that. I can only control to pitch."
So that's what he did, especially after escaping that inning. The Phillies pushed across a run right away for him, and he made it stand as if it were a crooked numbers.
There were moments, for sure, even without the misplays. Of the 104 pitches he threw before he was removed with one out in the eighth, just 61 were strikes. But every time he needed to make a pitch, he made one.
"We got that run and he was so locked in," said Ben Revere, whose triple was one of only four Phillies hits. "He hit his spots. When he fell behind he got right back into it. Or he got a ground- ball out. Today was his day. He was good."
And for now his team is, too. The Phillies are a game over .500 and 1 1/2 games out of first place on May 5. For all their early spring uncertainty, for all their bullpen and health concerns, it's a pretty good place to be. Their hitting approach is yielding more two-out runs, their veterans have hit well enough and remained healthy, their closer has found his groove, but when somebody asked Sandberg what he thought of his team at this juncture, he didn't double-clutch on the answer.
"I think starting pitching is our strong point right now," he said. "Guys are going seven innings, into the eighth inning with our starting pitching. We've been able to utilize our bullpen in situational roles. And Papelbon is on a roll."