Cordero, Nats Let Another Get Away

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 14, 2006

ATLANTA, May 13 -- The position has become far too familiar for the Washington Nationals, a reliever standing in the middle of the field, bent at the waist as if doubled over in physical pain, opposing runners circling the bases, just waiting to greet each other at home plate, to celebrate a come-from-behind win.

Saturday night, it was Chad Cordero, the Nationals' closer who has been presented with far too few opportunities to close games. Granted a two-run lead in the ninth against the Atlanta Braves, Cordero couldn't finish it, and the game ended -- once again, for the Nationals -- in agonizing fashion, with Jeff Francoeur's game-winning grand slam providing the difference in an unlikely 8-5 victory for the Braves, with Cordero walking slowly off the mound, his glove lodged in his mouth.

In a vacuum, that result is bad enough, for it was the Nationals' fourth straight loss. But couple it with the result from 48 hours earlier, when the Nationals blew a three-run lead in the 11th and lost to Cincinnati on a game-ending homer from Ken Griffey Jr., and someone might as well take a crowbar to the Nationals' knees.

"I've seen people lose games at the end like that over 162 games maybe four or five times," Nationals catcher Matthew LeCroy said. "But never back-to-back like that."

Technically, it wasn't back-to-back, for the Braves put a 6-2 defeat on the Nationals Friday night. But afterward, it certainly felt like it to the Washington players, who find themselves with no consistent options in the bullpen. Cordero, who led the majors in saves a year ago, was supposed to be their rock. Saturday night, he crumbled.

"It's kind of obvious what I did," he said. "I sucked."

The 24-year-old entered the game with a 5-3 lead, one provided not only from another solid outing from rookie left-hander Mike O'Connor, but a decent effort from relievers Jon Rauch and Gary Majewski, each of whom pitched out of jams to hold the lead going into the ninth, not to mention a tiebreaking two-run homer from Alfonso Soriano. The mission last season, for Cordero, would have been so simple: Get three outs and go home.

"You expect to win those games," Manager Frank Robinson said. "And you have to be able to win those ballgames like that."

Robinson, though, had to watch this one on television, for he was ejected in the eighth inning by home plate umpire John Hirschbeck as he was replacing lefty Mike Stanton with Majewski. Robinson said Hirschbeck heard him say something to LeCroy, thought the comment was directed at Hirschbeck, and tossed him.

That, though, mattered not by the time Cordero came in. Here, then, are the results of Cordero's first three pitches: homer to Brian McCann, single up the middle for pinch hitter Ryan Langerhans, single to left for Marcus Giles.

"They were swinging at the first pitch, which is the one where I try to go out and get a strike," Cordero said. "They made me pay."

Yet even with Cordero clearly unstable, he nearly got out of it. The next hitter, Edgar Renteria, laid down a bunt, an attempt to sacrifice, but Cordero boldly threw to third to get the forceout. Chipper Jones followed with a bouncing ball to the left of second baseman Jose Vidro, one which Vidro knocked down to prevent Giles from scoring the tying run.

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