Fancy Pitching Changes Devastate Nats' Lead

Chad Cordero
Chad Cordero reacts to giving up a grand slam to San Diego Padres Khalil Greene in the ninth inning. (Fred Greaves - Reuters)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 18, 2005; 2:37 AM

SAN DIEGO, Sept. 17 -- The story of the night should have been Hector Carrasco, for the career reliever had turned in a splendid start, six innings of shutout ball when no such outcome could be expected. He then handed the game to the Nationals' stalwart bullpen. Mike Stanton did his job in the seventh. Gary Majewski did his job in the eighth. And the Nationals took a five-run lead into the ninth inning Saturday night against the San Diego Padres.

But then Nationals Manager Frank Robinson decided to get fancy. He took out rookie Jason Bergmann with one out and a runner on first. He took out lefty Joey Eischen with two outs and runners on first and second. He took out rookie Travis Hughes after he allowed an RBI single. And he turned to Chad Cordero, the closer, who walked a man, then gave up the most dramatic and devastating of blows -- a two-out, game-tying grand slam to Khalil Greene.

The Padres' 8-5 victory wasn't sealed until Ramon Hernandez drilled the first pitch he saw from Jon Rauch in the bottom of the 12th for a three-run home run. Yet it was Greene's heroics -- along with Robinson's mysterious moves and Cordero's collapse -- for which this game will be remembered. The Nationals had won 68 straight games that they led by four or more runs. That streak ended in spectacular fashion.

"Who do you want me to leave in, Bergmann?" Robinson asked afterward. "Who do you want me to leave in, Eischen? Who do you want to leave in, Hughes? I've made the moves like I've made all year long. The moves that I thought were the right moves to try to get us out of an inning, to get three outs in the ninth inning. That's why all the moves."

Whether the game should have ever gotten to Cordero is a matter of debate, but the young closer's role in the loss is inarguable. Cordero, once the most dominant reliever in baseball who still leads the majors with 46 saves, is now in a full-blown funk. In September, when every save situation is critical, the 23-year-old has blown three of his six save opportunities, and has more homers allowed (five) than strikeouts (four). His ERA over that period is 12.00, because he has now given up eight runs in six innings.

After he dressed in a silent and somber dressing room at Petco Park, Cordero said it didn't matter that the Nationals entered the ninth with a five-run bulge.

"I'm always ready," he said. "I just went out there and blew it again."

Thus, the Nationals lost a game they absolutely, unequivocally should have won, and it was at a time when they simply can't afford such reversals of fortune. The loss, which snapped a four-game winning streak, dropped them 3-1/2 games behind the Houston Astros in the race for the National League's wild-card playoff berth. It may be one of the pivotal points that the team looks back upon if it misses the playoffs.

"It's a tough loss," Robinson said. "There's no other way to put it. It's a very difficult loss. It hurts because we lose ground. I said before we can't afford to lose ground. We took a big step backwards tonight where it looked like we were going to be able to gain some ground and come even with one of the teams we have to pass."

Just when it seemed they would pull even with the Florida Marlins and head toward Sunday's game against the Padres looking for a sweep and a perfect 6-0 road trip, they suffered Cordero's second meltdown in a week. Last Sunday, Cordero allowed back-to-back homers to Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones in a painful 9-7 loss to the Atlanta Braves. Saturday's collapse, though, was worse, for it involved more people, perhaps unnecessarily.

Bergmann began the ninth, the Nationals up 5-0, by walking Eric Young, but he came back to strike out Ramon Hernandez, and it seemed he might be left in to finish off the game until Robinson brought in Eischen to face left-handed hitter Brian Giles. Eischen needed just one pitch to get Giles to fly to center. But right-handed hitter Xavier Nady then sent a single to center.

Next! Robinson brought in Hughes, and the whole affair seemed to create more tension than the situation called for. Joe Randa singled to center, putting the Padres on the board, getting what remained of the crowed of 37,707 at Petco Park on its feet. It was 5-1, but the Padres had new life and Cordero was on his way in.

"He shouldn't have even been in the game," catcher Gary Bennett said. "We should've put that one away."

Cordero went to a full count on Mark Loretta, then missed with his final fastball, walking Loretta with the bases full. That brought up Greene, the Padres' eighth-place hitter who had never hit a grand slam -- that is, until Cordero grooved a 1-0 fastball that was supposed to be down and away, but caught too much of the plate. Greene sent it over the left-field fence, an incredible turn of events that tied the game and all but crushed the Nationals.

Greene's slam all served to wipe out what had been a stellar game performance from Carrasco, making just his third start in a major league career that now spans 559 appearances, his second start in a week. The six innings trumped his previous career high of 4-1/3, set in 2000, when he was with Minnesota. He was masterfully efficient, never throwing more than 15 pitches in an inning, finishing with 76, also a career high. He allowed three meaningless hits and a walk, never two base runners in the same inning. And he lowered his ERA to 2.01, more than two runs lower than his career mark (4.22) entering this season.

"Words don't describe the job he did tonight," Robinson said. "Terrific. Couldn't have been any better."

Words, however, do not describe the pain of this loss, for it could scarcely have been worse. Now, the Nationals have a problem, because the strength of the team, Cordero, might suddenly be a weakness. Just two years after leaving college as the top draft pick of the Montreal Expos, Cordero has appeared in 72 games.

Asked if all the work is wearing on him, Cordero said, "It could be. You always get tired. That's no excuse. I still got to go out there and make the pitches. Being tired is no excuse."

Robinson said he has been concerned about Cordero for two weeks, but he has no other option to close games. And the Nationals, their worst loss of the season behind them, have no other options now but to win each and every day.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company