Nationals' Fine Effort All for Naught in Ninth

Colorado catcher Yorvit Torrealba fields a second-inning sacrifice bunt by Nats pitcher Shawn Hill, left.
Colorado catcher Yorvit Torrealba fields a second-inning sacrifice bunt by Nats pitcher Shawn Hill, left. (By David Zalubowski -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 25, 2007

DENVER, Aug. 24 -- Chad Cordero sat with his jeans already on, his shoes already tied, his back to the room, his head in his locker. Across the visitors clubhouse late Friday night at Coors Field stood Shawn Hill, who had done his part by throwing seven dominant innings in which he allowed one run. Off in the shower was Ryan Zimmerman, who had done his part by hitting a solo homer and driving in three runs.

There are nights like these over the course of a baseball season, nights when so many pieces make all the right moves, yet one part breaks down, failing miserably. Friday night for the Washington Nationals, it was Cordero. He was handed a four-run lead in the ninth inning and couldn't come close to holding on, suffering a crushing 6-5 loss to the Colorado Rockies that was, by far, the Nationals' toughest of the year.

"It stings," Cordero said, "a whole lot."

Cordero clicked through the particulars in his mind -- the two-run homer to Matt Holliday that gave the Rockies hope, the double to Garrett Atkins that put the tying run in scoring position, the game-ending grounder from Kazuo Matsui that shortstop D'Angelo Jimenez couldn't handle, allowing the winning run to score -- and stared blankly. His ERA leapt from 2.80 to 3.39. His heart sank just as fast.

"We've been playing so well," Cordero said. "Our offense was doing well. Shawn pitched a heck of a game. And for me to come in there and give up the five runs, it's a tough thing to handle."

It would seem, as August winds to a close and the Nationals' most notable accomplishment has been climbing out of last place in the National League East, that such losses would be relatively meaningless. But Manager Manny Acta acknowledged afterward that -- given Hill's performance, given the fact that the Nationals were poised to notch their fourth win in five tries to start this 10-game trip -- that his club hadn't suffered a loss as difficult.

"We had a four-run lead in the ninth inning," Acta said, "and we blew it."

That didn't seem likely as Hill, making his third start since a three-month stint on the disabled list, was splicing up the Rockies. Though he allowed hits to the first two men he faced -- resulting in a run for Colorado -- he was lights out thereafter. He didn't walk a batter, struck out five and retired the final 12 men he faced.

So the stories about how a healthy Hill showed how he can anchor this staff were begging to be told. In 11 starts this season, he has only once given up as many as three earned runs. His ERA sits at 2.31.

"It's not wasted, as some people might think," Acta said, "because he was able to show us what we think of him."

Zimmerman's solo homer in the third -- his 20th of the year, matching his total from his rookie season of 2006 -- put the Nationals up 2-1, and his two-run single in the seventh gave them a 4-1 lead. Throw in a solo homer from left fielder Wily Mo Pe�a in the eighth -- his third since being acquired exactly a week earlier -- and the rest seemed a mere formality. Luis Ayala handled a 1-2-3 eighth, and Acta -- even with the lead at four runs, meaning it wasn't a save situation -- didn't hesitate to hand the ball to his closer.

"A four-run lead here in Coors Field with the heart of the order, it's a save to me," Acta said. "Maybe not in the stats. But to me, it's a save situation. . . . You got to have your best guy on the mound."

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