Livan Hernandez
Livan Hernandez holds the Braves to one run in eight innings on Tuesday.
Correction to This Article
A July 27 Sports article incorrectly indicated that Washington Nationals reliever Chad Cordero pitched against the Atlanta Braves in the top of the ninth inning of the previous day's game. Cordero pitched in the bottom of the ninth for the visiting Nationals.

With Walk, Nats Tumble From First

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 27, 2005

ATLANTA, July 26 -- All year long he had been the best part of the best story in baseball, the little right-hander from a place called Chino, the one with the flat-brimmed cap and the fastball that buckled knees. For half a season, Chad Cordero blew away the National League, hopping after every save, clapping his glove and making the improbable seem possible.

Then Tuesday night he stood on the mound in the most important game of the year, with the drums pounding and 43,308 doing the Tomahawk Chop. And suddenly, in the heat of the first pennant race Washington has known in generations, he looked very, very ordinary.

The Braves pounded three straight fastballs from Cordero in the top of the ninth of a game he was supposed to save, but instead left to Luis Ayala to lose, 3-2, in the 10th.

Later in a silent clubhouse, with the Nationals in second place for the first time since June 5, their newest pitcher, Mike Stanton, shook his head.

"It looks like [the Braves] did their homework," he said. "They knew he throws first-pitch strikes and they usually are fastballs away and when he threw them they didn't miss them."

So now even the bullpen fails them. For most of four months the Nationals could at least rely on one thing working even when the injuries came and the offense disappeared. They could expect a game taken to the ninth with a lead was going to belong to them. After all, they were 50-1 in such situations before Tuesday night.

And they were on the brink of doing it again, after managing to pull together two runs against one of the National League's most dominant starters -- John Smoltz -- with one more wonderful game from Livan Hernandez.

They were up a run and the bullpen door was swinging open. That usually means the night is over.

"The bullpen didn't do its job," Washington Manager Frank Robinson said.

The manager would not buy into the notion that the rest of the league has caught up to Cordero 34 saves into the year. He was asked if the reliever has been relying too much on the fastball and he snapped that Cordero has more than one pitch and uses them all. He also rejected the notion that the reliever had come into too big a moment for someone just 23, saying, "Don't read too much into what happened."

But in the top of the ninth, Cordero gave up a rocket to Andruw Jones that hit the fence on one hop for a double, then a line drive single to center from Chipper Jones that was hit so hard Andruw Jones had to stop at third, then a long fly ball slammed to right field by Adam LaRoche to tie the game.

Cordero may well have lost right there in the ninth had catcher Brian Schneider not made a perfect throw to catch Chipper Jones trying to steal second.

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