By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 26, 2006
ATLANTA, Aug. 25 -- Saul Rivera didn't know he would be the closer. Frank Robinson didn't know Rivera would have to try to save the game. Chad Cordero has been the person, the only person, that Robinson calls on in such situations. Friday night would be no different. Until . . .
"The ninth inning," Robinson said.
That's when the Washington Nationals, protecting a three-run lead, wanted to call on Cordero. That's when Cordero rose to warm up. And that's when Cordero told the staff that the ingrown toenail on his right big toe -- the one he had treatment on before the game -- wouldn't allow him to pitch.
So it was up to Rivera, a rookie, to nail down the Nationals' 7-6 victory over the Atlanta Braves, the one that snapped Washington's unsightly five-game losing streak. Forget, for a moment, that Rivera almost made the situation even messier, that he gave up a two-run homer to pinch hitter Ryan Langerhans and then had to retire the Braves' two best hitters, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones, with the winning run on base.
Remember, in a summer filled with disappointments, that Rivera ultimately came through.
"My heart is still pumping," Rivera said some 15 minutes after he closed it out. "Big-time, man."
Rivera's adventurous ninth would have been the most significant development on a night that included a go-ahead, three-run homer from Austin Kearns in the seventh, Kearns's third homer in three games -- a welcome development considering how much the right fielder has struggled since he came over in a July trade from Cincinnati, just one homer prior to this streak.
"He got us the big hit," Robinson said.
But to some extent, all that was secondary in the clubhouse afterward. Center fielder Alex Escobar dislocated his right shoulder in gruesome fashion diving back into first base after reaching on a single in the eighth inning -- an injury that will all but certainly end his season. Escobar had done all the Nationals could ask in the game, singling three times, driving in a run with a sacrifice fly and walking in five plate appearances. The performance raised his average to .356 on the season, another indication of his enormous potential -- if he could just stay healthy.
Yet he can't.
"I can't describe how bad you feel for this kid," Robinson said. The injuries, Robinson noted, seem to come just when Escobar looks as if he can be a significant contributor. "And then, bam, something happens. It's just like he's got a cloud hanging over his head, a negative force."
The play came with one out, when catcher Brian Schneider smacked a line drive to Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur. With Escobar playing the ball about halfway, Francoeur threw behind him to first, an attempt at a double play.
Escobar strode back, too, and was set to easily beat the throw. But he lunged headfirst, reaching for the bag with his right hand. He landed hard, and jammed his arm into the base. He immediately buried his head in his left arm, and first base coach Davey Lopes signaled to the dugout for help.
Escobar lay on the ground for several minutes as athletic trainers tended to him, and he finally walked off the field gingerly, obviously shaken. Once a top prospect with the New York Mets, his career has been marred by too many injuries to mention -- mostly problems with his legs and feet -- and it's possible this season, when he was finally getting a chance, has now ended prematurely as well.
The Nationals placed Escobar -- who will travel to Washington Saturday for an MRI exam and further evaluation -- on the 15-day disabled list immediately after the game, and recalled right-handed reliever Kevin Gryboski from Class AAA New Orleans. If Cordero's problems continue, who knows? Perhaps Gryboski will be tossed into a situation such as Rivera found himself Friday night.
After Kearns's homer off Tyler Yates -- one of six relievers Braves Manager Bobby Cox used in the seventh and eighth innings to try to get all of six outs -- put the Nationals up 6-4, Washington was buoyed by the performance of relievers Ryan Wagner and Jon Rauch, who retired nine of 10 men in the sixth, seventh and eighth to first keep the Nationals close, and then preserve the lead.
That set the game up perfectly for Cordero, who last pitched on Wednesday. His ingrown toenail -- one that first surfaced earlier this month -- seemed fine. He figured he'd be ready.
"He felt like he was able to pitch, the last we heard," said Tim Abraham, the club's head athletic trainer.
Yet Cordero threw three or four pitches warming up, and he couldn't go. Enter Rivera, in his first major league season, appearing for the 36th time.
"I was a little bit surprised," Rivera said. "But you have to do the job anyway."
He got the first out, a strikeout of Adam LaRoche. But Matt Diaz followed with a single to left, bringing up Langerhans. The pinch hitter launched a 1-1 offering from Rivera deep to right-center. Suddenly, it was a one-run game. Worse, Rivera walked Marcus Giles, then allowed a single to Edgar Renteria.
Yet here came Rivera, getting Chipper Jones to check his swing on strike three, a huge out. And with Andruw Jones at the plate -- a Nationals' killer if there ever was one -- Rivera somehow induced a popup on the infield, one corralled by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.
"He had two of the best hitters, the toughest hitters in the game, with the game on the line," Robinson said. "I think he grew up a lot tonight."
Though it might have cost Robinson a year or two off his life.