Nats Flattened by One-Two Punch

Chipper Jones, left, and the Braves congratulate Andruw Jones after the second of his two home runs.
Chipper Jones, left, and the Braves congratulate Andruw Jones after the second of his two home runs. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 12, 2005

Before the last out of the top of the ninth inning settled into the glove of Washington Nationals right fielder Jose Guillen, Chad Cordero began the painful walk back to his dugout, staring blankly. He took his glove off his left hand, then put it in his mouth, letting it dangle, swallowing the words of frustration he might have screamed if not for the impediment.

"I just wanted," he said later, "to throw stuff."

Following an afternoon in which the Nationals improbably and emotionally overcame a six-run deficit, the season may have been decided in the previous five minutes, when Cordero -- needing one out to save yet another victory -- served up a two-run home run to Chipper Jones, then watched a blast from the next batter, Andruw Jones, sail over the fence at RFK Stadium, his second homer of the day. Stunningly, a 7-6 lead turned into a 9-7 loss, one that closed a 10-game homestand in devastating fashion, and left Cordero -- perhaps the Nationals' most valuable player -- beating himself up.

"I messed up," he said, and the self-criticism began spilling out. At 23, Cordero is all laid-back California calm, but in assessing his performance at a crucial point, when the Nationals are barely hanging on to hopes of reaching the postseason, he couldn't find words harsh enough.

"It cost us a win," he said. "It cost us the game. It's terrible. I feel bad. The other guys, they went out there today, and they battled. And I come out there for one inning, and I blow it."

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in front of an announced crowd of 31,834, the Nationals could have written yet another story about how they staved off seemingly certain death. They used eight pitchers, none for more than two innings, and fell behind 6-0. Atlanta starter John Smoltz needed just 74 pitches to cruise through seven innings and left with a 6-2 lead. But when the Nationals got to the Braves' most glaring weakness -- a largely inexperienced and frequently incompetent bullpen -- they salivated. Smoltz's departure, Nationals outfielder Ryan Church said, "was pretty much a blessing for us."

Just 10 days earlier in Atlanta, Smoltz left with a 7-1 lead against the Nationals, only to have Washington come back to tie the game. Friday night, the Nationals trailed the Braves 6-2, yet came back for an 8-6 victory. There was reason for hope.

"Are you going to score five runs in one inning against them?" Manager Frank Robinson asked. "You're not looking at that."

Except that's precisely what happened. The eighth inning began with the first Atlanta reliever, Blaine Boyer, issuing walks to the only two men he faced. Next! What Chipper Jones would later call "a colossal breakdown in our bullpen" was just starting.

Brad Wilkerson drove in one run with a single. Rick Short was hit by a pitch. Nick Johnson followed with a two-run single off the head of Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche. And after Church tied the game with a sacrifice fly, rookie Ryan Zimmerman -- 20 years old, just more than three months removed from his junior season at the University of Virginia -- lined a two-out single to center to score Johnson from second, giving the Nationals the lead.

"It was stirring," Robinson said.

The formula, at that point, was simple. Turn to Cordero. "He gets the ball," Church said, "and it's pretty automatic."

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