We all love trivia.  And in the first year of Citi Field, we will have plenty of chances to come up with questions to stump our pals down the road.  What were the odds coming into the year that Livan Hernandez would be the first pitcher to throw a complete game at the pitcher-friendly ballpark?

Years from now, when they get ready to replace decrepit Citi Field with a new ballpark, a bunch of Mets fans will be sitting around talking about their memories of the old park.  And someone will ask the trivia question: Which Mets player was the first one to throw a complete game at Citi?

His friends won’t know the answer and they’ll try to figure it out.  They’ll go – well it opened in 2009, the year we endured all of the injuries and finally won the World Series for the first time since 1986.  Johan Santana was the ace but it can’t be him – that would be too obvious.

And then they’ll start listing all of the pitchers.

Mike Pelfrey – Nah, the only two complete games in his career came in 2008

John Maine – Nope, he always threw too many pitches and never could finish a game.

Oliver Perez – Well, that was the season he imploded and spend nearly the entire season in Triple A

After a long pause the light bulb comes on and the friend says – Of course it was Livan Hernandez!  Yeah, he really saved the season that year, didn’t he?

*****

Now that the pretend segment of this piece is over, let’s deal in some facts.  Right now the Mets have five players from their Opening Day lineup on the shelf and a sixth (Daniel Murphy) starting on a scattershot basis on the whim of his manager.  And the club is only one-half game out of first place.

There are a number of reasons for that – the bullpen has been excellent, the offense has been surprisingly potent even with someone new getting hurt on a daily basis, Santana being awesome and Maine and Pelfrey shaking off poor starts.  But anybody who doesn’t include the start by Livan Hernandez as one of the things keeping the Mets afloat is missing a big part of it.

Hernandez was signed to offer depth for the starting rotation, but was seemingly fourth on the pecking order behind Tim Redding, Freddy Garcia and Jon Niese for the fifth starter’s job.  But by the end of Spring Training, he was the only one healthy and pitching well so he got the nod.

In last night’s complete game, Hernandez threw 127 pitches (no one was warming up in the bullpen) allowed nine hits, walked one and struck out six.  The only run he allowed was a HR by Adam Dunn to lead off the seventh inning.  And before you say big deal, it was against the last-place Nationals, recognize that Washington is tied for third in the National League (with the Mets and Rockies) in runs, averaging 4,87 R/G.

Now, nine starts into the season, Hernandez is 4-1 and he has pitched well in eight of his nine games.  Only his loss on 4/23 did he put the Mets in a hole that they could not recover.  Other than that he’s (at least) given them a shot to win eight times out, which is outstanding for a fifth starter.  The Mets are 6-3 in games started by Hernandez.

With Perez out, Hernandez is actually the team’s fourth starter right now.  But he’s pitching even better than that.  In his last five games, Hernandez is 3-0 with a 2.70 ERA.  And Hernandez is succeeding because he throws strikes.  He has the worst stuff of any pitcher on the staff but while Maine and Pelfrey (and most notoriously Perez) nibble, Hernandez throws strikes and forces the batter to beat him and the defense.

Obviously, that is selling Hernandez short.  He throws a variety of pitches and knows how to keep hitters off balance.  You can’t survive in the majors throwing 85 mph fastballs down the heart of the plate.  Hernandez has excellent control and loads of pitching smarts and is using everything at his disposal to get hitters out.  If he was a lefty we would call him crafty.

In Spring Training, Hernandez said he was healthy and had no lingering knee issues, which had bothered him the past few seasons.  Players say things like that all of the time.  But in this case, I think there’s enough evidence to support the claim.  Hernandez is averaging 84.7 mph with his fastball, a full mile above last year and his highest average rating since 2005.  The extra bit on his fastball are making his slider, curve and change each more effective pitches.

Hitters are not making as much solid contact off of Hernandez, either.  Batters have hit just under 20 percent line drives versus him, the lowest amount since 2004.  His 2.21 K/BB ratio is also his best since ’04.  And Hernandez is accomplishing this without any great amount of luck, either.  His BABIP is .313 compared to a career average of .310 in the category.  His 4.52 FIP (a metric that uses walks, strikeouts and HR to approximate his ERA and eliminate luck) is very close to his real ERA (4.28).

The big question now becomes if Hernandez can keep this up.  Before the season I said I would be happy if he gave the Mets the 13 W and the 180 IP he produced last year.  It would not be a surprise if his ERA went up from where it is now, but it certainly looks good for Hernandez to give the Mets wins and innings as long as he remains healthy and in the rotation.

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