Bullpen Melts Down, Nats Limp Into Break

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 10, 2006

The phone rang in the Washington Nationals' bullpen in the middle of the sixth inning, with the home team leading by six runs, seemingly coasting to a series-salvaging win over the San Diego Padres. Manager Frank Robinson was on the line, and he had a question for two of his relievers, Gary Majewski and Chad Cordero.

Robinson asked: Could the two of you get me four innings?

The answer was yes, and Robinson called on Majewski to replace Jon Rauch with one out in the fifth. The overworked Nationals bullpen hadn't allowed a run in 23 innings, and Majewski and Cordero were in charge of maintaining the streak, or at least making 11 outs before surrendering five runs.

The task was simple; the results disastrous. Majewski and Cordero retired just six batters between them. They allowed eight runs, including the knockout blow, a pinch-hit, two-out solo home run by Mike Piazza in the top of the ninth inning that gave the Padres a 10-9 victory and a second consecutive sweep of the Nats at RFK Stadium.

What seemed an easy win had been squandered, leaving a sour taste in the team's mouth entering the all-star break. The loss seemed an apt way to end the first half of the season: The Nationals played well enough to win, but were undone by injuries and maddening inconsistency.

"We get one part of the game right, and two-thirds of it, we don't get right," Robinson said. "That's the way it's gone the first half of the season, and that's the way it was today."

When Cordero entered in the eighth, he inherited a 7-5 lead and immediately gave up a run that got San Diego within one. But Brian Schneider smacked a two-run homer in the Nats' half of the inning to give Cordero a comfortable 9-6 lead.

Josh Bard led off the ninth by lacing a line drive to center, directly at Alex Escobar. Escobar braced himself, trying to read the ball. By the time he did, the ball was flying over his head and off the wall for a double.

Adrian Gonzalez followed with another drive to center, this one with more air under it. Escobar waited a second before turning, sprinting and leaping at the warning track. He collided with the wall and the ball rolled out of his glove for another double and a run.

"Those two balls were pretty well hit," Escobar said. "It's pretty tough when the sun gets low to get a read on the ball off the bat."

Robinson had little sympathy for his new center fielder.

"I feel like [Cordero] should have had two outs, the way the balls were hit the first two hitters," Robinson said. "We get two outs, I think we win the ballgame."

As it happened, Khalil Greene came to the plate with a man on second, his team down a run. Cordero pounded Greene with sliders until the count ran full. Wary of a walk, Cordero threw a fastball, up and in, which Greene crushed over the left field fence to tie the score at 9.

Cordero struck out Mark Bellhorn and got Josh Barfield to fly out to left, bringing up the pitcher's spot with two outs. San Diego Manager Bruce Bochy needed a pinch hitter, and he just so happened to have a future Hall of Famer on his bench.

At 37, Piazza is no longer an everyday offensive force or New York matinee idol, but he can still hit.

"He's always dangerous," Schneider said. "You never take him lightly."

Cordero started Piazza with a strike, then fired his 51st pitch of the day, a fastball down and in. Piazza unleashed his familiar swing, all hips and torso, and the ball rocketed off his bat and landed in the mezzanine.

Four pitches later, Cordero trudged off the mound with his third blown save and fourth loss, making way for Saul Rivera, after a career-high 55 pitches.

"I blew it," Cordero said. "We had a good game offensive-wise and then myself and Gary stepped in."

Majewski hit the first batter he faced, surrendered three hard hits and got just one out as four runs crossed the plate. By the time Mike Stanton was called in, a 7-1 lead had shrunk to 7-5.

"I had no clue where it was going today," Majewski said.

"Everything I tried, it didn't work. When I did throw a strike, it was down the middle and the were knocking the [heck] out of it."

As badly as it ended, the game didn't start much better for the Nationals. They lost starter John Patterson after one inning to a forearm strain. A bullpen that had already worked 25 innings over the past five games would be called upon for at least eight more.

Still, the Nationals built a lead on three-run home runs by Nick Johnson in the first inning and Escobar in the fifth. A win should have been at hand, but the Nationals closed out their first half the way they played most of it.

Robinson, for one, has seen enough for now.

"I don't even want to see a ballpark tomorrow," Robinson said. "I don't even want to see a ballgame. My TV is boycotting baseball for the next three days."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company