The guy with the answers is never too far away whenever Craig Kimbrel needs advice or an opinion, or could just use a laugh.
He usually can just turn to his left or right to find his knowledgeable teammate, the veteran who is quick to share his wisdom, a joke or two, and a smile that disappears only when he enters a game.
Kimbrel, the Atlanta Braves’ overpowering young closer, has come to rely on Livan Hernandez, who could barely bust a balloon with his velocity these days.
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Their conversations go much beyond velocity. Kimbrel constantly picks Hernandez’s brain, asking questions about hitters, pitch selection, game situations and even life.
There’s not much that Hernandez hasn’t seen in his 17 seasons in the majors. And there’s not much he won’t talk about.
“Any time you have a question about something — ‘What’s your outlook on this?’ or ‘How would you go about this?’ — it’s great to have that, you know,” Kimbrel said. “(Livan) has been out there. He has an understanding of the game. Obviously, he does, because he doesn’t have the overpowering stuff (anymore). He knows how the game works and how to pitch. It’s great to be able to pick his brain and see how he does it.”
Hernandez signed with the Braves on March 30, knowing he was heading for the bullpen. It didn’t matter that he had made only one relief appearance in the majors — and that was in his first game, in 1996 — the Braves needed a reliable guy who could stretch those middle innings and bridge the gap from the young starters to the bullpen’s valuable back-end guys.
They needed someone to save arms, not games, so who better than Hernandez, a 37-year-old who has pitched more career innings (3,141) than any current pitcher except Jamie Moyer?
When the Houston Astros released Hernandez, only a few minutes went by before the Braves called his agent. They quickly agreed on a one-year, $750,000 deal full of incentives.
His familiarity with Braves general manager Frank Wren, manager Fredi Gonzalez and coach Carlos Tosca — who were all with the Marlins organization when Hernandez originally signed in 1996 — helped. Also, Hernandez, Gonzalez and Tosca are all native Cubans.
Hernandez said he had signed with the Astros in the offseason with the understanding that he would be their No. 4 starter. He struggled in two of his five spring training starts for the Astros, who released him with a 1-2 record and 5.63 ERA. Instead of waiting around for a team to give him another starting shot, Hernandez took the Braves’ offer.
“I’m super happy,” he said. “For a couple of years, I tried to play (in Atlanta). It didn’t happen, but it’s happening right now. It’s a professional organization, and everybody is professional here. They’re here to play baseball and try to win some games.
“I’m more relaxed and comfortable here.”
He leads the bullpen with 19-1/3 innings in 10 games and was rewarded with his first career save with 1-2/3 scoreless innings in the Braves’ 13-9 victory over the Colorado Rockies on Saturday. It came in his 485th career appearance, after 174 career victories.
“I’ve never been in that situation,” Hernandez told MLB.com afterward. “I think (Eric) Hinske told me, ‘First save’ and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah.’ Then when I started giving (high-fives) to everybody, I was like, ‘Wow, first save.’ It’s very nice.”
The Braves haven’t ruled out turning to Hernandez if they need a spot starter at some point. And he thinks that he can still be an effective major league starter. He said he would like to reach 200 career victories.
Still, “I have (174) wins in the big leagues, which is not easy,” he said. “I think (174) is a lot of wins.”
Hernandez no longer throws like the young rookie who struck out 15 Braves in Game 5 of the 1997 National League Championship Series. His fastest pitches rarely reach the mid-80s these days, and he usually relies on a variety of curves that more likely would bounce off a window instead of breaking it.
He also has packed on a few pounds. But with that weight and experience has come wisdom. He has pitched in both leagues and is with his eighth MLB team.
Through his travels, Hernandez learned not to take himself too seriously, until he’s on the mound.
“I try to laugh every day,” he said. “I try to have fun during the game. I told the young guys, ‘If you don’t have fun here, you’re not going to (last) too long in this game.’ You’ve got to take care of business. When that time comes, you’ve got to do the best you can. Sometimes, it’s not going to go the way you want, (but) there’s another day.”
Hernandez is the oldest pitcher on the Braves’ staff. He has three years on fellow reliever Chad Durbin and seven on Cristhian Martinez, who just turned 30. Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters are both 27. Kris Medlen is 26, and Kimbrel will be 24 this month.
“Livan has seen it all,” Kimbrel said. “He’s a great guy to have down there, to have a veteran in the bullpen. It’s awesome because he has that kid to him. He still has fun playing ball. It’s great to see.”