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Cordero Open to Being the Closer

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2005; Page D01

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 17 -- When the sun fell across the flattened brim of Chad Cordero's hat Thursday morning, it cast a deep shadow across his eyes. No way to read them, to know what he was thinking as the Washington Nationals' pitchers and catchers went through their first workout on a seemingly endless stretch of practice fields beyond Space Coast Stadium.

Happy or sad, comfortable or rattled, you couldn't tell. It is the way Cordero has been since he arrived in the major leagues in August 2003. He was just 21 years old. He didn't seem it.

"Things don't bother him -- not outwardly, anyway," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson says of Chad Cordero, above, who posted a 2.94 ERA last season. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

"At that age, you almost expect them to be overwhelmed," said Randy St. Claire, the Nationals' pitching coach. "But he wasn't. You could see, from the day he was called up, that he had it, that calm demeanor, the makeup. Right away, you saw it."

Manager Frank Robinson saw it, too. It's the main reason why, last June, he took the ball from then-closer Rocky Biddle, whose confidence was shot, and handed it to Cordero, age and experience be damned.

Thursday, though, the goal was merely to stretch out some arms and shake off some rust. There are no games to win for another three weeks, and the regular season doesn't begin until April 4. Robinson is well aware of what that one word -- "closer" -- can do to a hardened veteran. He's not about to put it on Cordero's 22-year-old back on the first day of spring.

"I would prefer not to have him in that role, at least not full-time, anyway," Robinson said. "Right now, [I'd like to] take some of the pressure off of him, and take some of the load off of him. . . . I don't want to lose this kid, mentally, at any time."

Lose this kid, Robinson realizes, and the season could be lost before it starts. But even Robinson admits that Cordero might be the one National who is best equipped to handle the situation. Headed into their first season in Washington, still owned by Major League Baseball, the Nationals didn't have the means to pursue and sign a front-line closer, because such players earn ungodly sums.

But as General Manager Jim Bowden and Robinson went over the options at each spot, they understood what they had in Cordero. The mentality -- calm but fierce -- is there. The fastball -- not overpowering, but sneaky -- is there as well. The only thing that isn't is more than a smattering of major league experience. Sure, he's pitched in the World Series. The College World Series, in 2003 for Cal State-Fullerton.

"I know I was young when I came up," Cordero said. "And I learned. It's a lot harder up here. The hitters, you make one mistake, they'll make you pay, whereas in college, you can throw a fastball right down the middle, and they might swing through it. You do that here, chances are it's going to get hit hard."

Even in college, though, Cordero showed the competitiveness necessary for the role. He served as the Titans' closer as a freshman. His stuff wasn't overwhelming, particularly in intrasquad scrimmages. But put him in a situation -- against a big rival, one-run lead, two men on -- and he transforms.

"He'd become a different person," said George Horton, the coach at Cal State-Fullerton. "He had a different makeup. I don't want to exaggerate it, but I'd say it all the time. He'd get that adrenaline rush, and it's like he went from Clark Kent to Superman. He'd take the glasses off, and he'd just take over."

That ability to throw the switch allowed Cordero to have early success in the role. In 2004, he converted 14 of 18 save opportunities, went 7-3 and posted a 2.94 ERA. In his career, he has inherited 20 base runners. None has scored.

"Things don't bother him -- not outwardly, anyway," Robinson said. "If he gives up a big home run, he still has the same demeanor as if he struck somebody out in a tough situation."

Cordero benefits, too, from the fact that he's not learning how to deal with the pressure of the closer's role at the major league level. As a freshman, he would sit in a class called "Mental Skills for Sports," and seemingly turn into a sponge.

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