Chico Plays Big Role In Divisional Drama

Phillies players look on as Chad Cordero closes out the game for Washington. Philadelphia must beat the Nationals today to guarantee themselves of playing tomorrow, or perhaps even beyond that.
Phillies players look on as Chad Cordero closes out the game for Washington. Philadelphia must beat the Nationals today to guarantee themselves of playing tomorrow, or perhaps even beyond that. (By Rusty Kennedy -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2007

PHILADELPHIA, Sept. 29 -- To most of a baseball-watching nation Saturday morning, Matt Chico was just a name in a box score, a faceless rookie who worked for the anonymous Washington Nationals. The assumption all week has been that Chico and his teammates -- stuck in baseball oblivion for so long -- would eventually fizzle against teams in a pennant race, because that is what people assumed since before spring training.

But ask any of the 44,532 towel-waving fans at Citizens Bank Park on Saturday what they think of Chico and the Nationals now, now that they have taken a 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, now that they have pushed the Phillies back into a tie for first place in the National League East with the New York Mets, now that the 162nd and final game of the season will determine so many fates.

All of New York was certainly surprised when the Nationals pulled off a dominant sweep of the Mets earlier in the week. Now, Philadelphia is equally stunned, because the Phillies themselves looked unsure of how to handle first place, committing a pair of errors that led to two key runs in the top of the seventh, and because Chico pitched six scoreless innings before allowing Aaron Rowand's solo homer in the bottom of that frame.

Only in the Nationals' clubhouse does this kind of performance seem normal.

"This was their postseason this week, and they had a chance to make a difference in a playoff race," General Manager Jim Bowden beamed afterward. "And they've sat and gone against two of the best teams in our league, and they've gone 5-1 and played with heart and character. . . . They've taken every pitch seriously, every at-bat, every inning. My hat's off to them."

The Nationals have helped the Phillies and the Mets stage a rousing race over the season's final three weeks. The Phillies were seven games back on Sept. 12, pulled into a first-place tie with the Mets on Thursday, took the lead outright Friday night, then gave it back Saturday, when the Mets snapped a gruesome five-game losing streak by crushing Florida, 13-0.

Sunday, if one of them wins and the other loses, the winner takes the National League East title. If they both have the same result, they will force a one-game playoff Monday here. If San Diego loses Sunday, there's a chance of another one-game playoff to determine the wild card.

"We put it in their hands now," Manager Manny Acta said. "It's up to the Phillies and the Mets to decide their own future."

Yet that's only partly true. The Nationals -- who clinched fourth place Saturday, a minor development in baseball, a major step in their clubhouse -- have had an enormous impact on both teams. Sunday, right-hander Jason Bergmann -- who has occasionally been brilliant this season -- will face veteran Phillies left-hander Jamie Moyer, who has a 6.16 ERA since the all-star break. This for a Philadelphia team that used six relievers Saturday.

"He's got experience, so you let him go a little bit longer," Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel said of Moyer. "I think he'll be fine."

Yet in the 162nd game of the year, there are no guarantees. The same can be said for No. 161, when Chico baffled the Phillies, grabbing the energy from the Philadelphia fans -- who had watched their team win 12 of 15. Forget that Chico is 24 and had never pitched above Class AA before this year. If there was one National who wouldn't show that he was affected by such an environment, it was he.

"They sent him down to Triple A, and it was the same expression," catcher Brian Schneider said. "He came back up: same expression."

He pitched in a frenzied atmosphere: same expression. All day, his slider started low and dived lower. His key frame might have been the sixth, when he was protecting a fragile 2-0 lead and faced the biggest studs in a perilous lineup -- Chase Utley, Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard. The result: three lazy fly balls.

"Once you get out on the field, you kind of block everything out," Chico said. "That's kind of what I had to do. In between innings, I could hear it. It's a fun atmosphere to play in. They're rowdy."

In the top of the seventh, the Phillies provided the breaks. Howard's error at first allowed one run to score, and a throwing error by catcher Carlos Ruiz on a wild pitch brought home one more. With that, solo homers from Rowand and Howard -- off Jon Rauch -- proved less daunting. Closer Chad Cordero came up with a rarity -- a ho-hum, 1-2-3 ninth.

So in the midst of races run by other people, the Nationals puffed out their chests a bit. Since May 11, they are 64-63.

"You walk into New York City, and you play the biggest payroll in this league, and you sweep all three games," Bowden said, "and you walk in here and split your first two games, you send a message to the rest of the league, what your heart and character's about -- and the talent that you have.

"This is a better team than people are giving credit for. They're young and they're inexperienced, so it's hard to believe until you keep watching it. But this is not a fluke."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company