Nationals Follow Through on Lead
Friday, April 13, 2007
ATLANTA, April 12 -- Let the record show that at 9:32 p.m. Eastern time Thursday, Ronnie Belliard, second baseman for the Washington Nationals, lined a single into right field. Chris Snelling, the Nationals' left fielder, took off from second base. The opposing Atlanta Braves had no play. Snelling put his foot on home plate. And -- yes, here it is, in black-and-white -- the Washington Nationals led 1-0 in the eighth inning.
On the bench, center fielder Ryan Church yelled it out, a few expletives mixed in: "We've got a lead!"
Such an event might be commonplace throughout baseball, an everyday occurrence. The Nationals, however, had to reach their 10th game before they held a lead in the middle of the game. That it morphed into a 2-0 victory -- one barely secured by high wire-loving closer Chad Cordero -- was, in some bizarre sense, merely a bonus.
The Nationals had lost six straight games and eight of nine to start the year. But more crippling than any of that, in a way, was the fact that their only lead to that point had come in a furious ninth-inning comeback last week against Florida in what became their only victory.
Washington is, without question, on the verge of becoming an afterthought for the entire 2007 season, unless the Nationals threaten, as some observers believe they will, records for futility. So there is one small footnote to Thursday's victory: It pulled Washington to 2-8 after 10 games. Both the 1962 New York Mets (120 losses) and the 2003 Detroit Tigers (119 losses) were 1-9 at this point.
"We needed it," Manager Manny Acta said.
They got it because some unfavorable matchups worked out just fine. Start with right-hander Jason Bergmann -- he of the six-walk, 3 2/3 -inning outing in first start of the season -- facing Atlanta veteran John Smoltz. Bergmann's first stint had General Manager Jim Bowden delivering what Bergmann referred to as "a nice chat," one in which the message was clear: No walks.
Bergmann couldn't quite adhere to that. He walked the first man he faced, needed 30 pitches to get out of the first, and ended up with four free passes in his six innings. But the thing he might have learned: If he throws strikes, hitters might have a tough time with him. Andruw Jones's double leading off the fourth was the only hit against Bergmann, who struck out eight.
"For any pitcher anytime at any skill level," Bergmann said, "if you throw strikes, you're probably going to get guys out more often than you don't."
Still, Smoltz matched him. Washington hasn't scored in any of the first three innings this season, an oddity that lives on. But in the eighth they finally got to Smoltz, who hit Snelling, then walked Felipe Lopez with one out to get to Belliard.
"He threw me something I could handle," Belliard said, and when Ryan Zimmerman followed with an opposite-field single, the Nationals had -- shout it from the mountain tops -- a two-run lead.
The perfect relief work of Jesus Colome and Jon Rauch left it to Cordero in the ninth. When Cordero -- who, because his team had never led previously, had his first save opportunity of the season -- strode to the mound, the mammoth video board in center field blared the moment from last May 13, when Cordero allowed Jeff Francoeur's game-ending grand slam, a crushing loss for Washington.
"They'd be stupid not to play it," catcher Brian Schneider said. The hitters Cordero was scheduled to face: Edgar Renteria, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones. Combined, they have hit .344 in their careers against Cordero with four homers and three doubles. So Cordero had one thought.
"Just get Renteria out," he said. "Don't put myself in a situation where Andruw can beat us."
Cordero had blown twice as many saves against the Braves (four) as he had against any other single team. So he, Schneider and pitching coach Randy St. Claire decided to change the approach. After Renteria lined out to start the inning, Schneider called almost all sliders and change-ups.
"His fastball's his number one pitch, and you don't want to take that away from him," Schneider said. "But he is confident in his off-speed stuff."
Chipper Jones managed a groundball single, and Andruw Jones laid off slider after slider, drawing a full-count walk. After Cordero struck out Brian McCann, he faced Francoeur, who walked on five pitches.
"It's got to be interesting," Cordero said.
Cordero worked the count to 3-2 on Scott Thorman, and then threw -- surprise -- a slider that Thorman missed. In the one instance when the Nationals finally, mercifully got a lead, they didn't give it back.