By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008
NEW YORK, April 16 -- A plethora of concerns reside in the Washington Nationals' clubhouse, what with Wednesday's 5-2 loss to the New York Mets standing as their 11th in 12 games, a .227 team batting average that is the lowest in baseball, and an utter inability for their best hitters to come through with men on base. Pick a topic and block out an hour, because there's plenty to discuss.
But when closer Chad Cordero came on in an innocuous, eighth-inning situation just to get some work in, alarms rang out throughout the organization. Cordero's warm-up pitches were so shockingly slow that Manager Manny Acta and pitching coach Randy St. Claire visited the mound before he began the inning. His first pitch, a fastball, registered at 76 mph on the scoreboard radar gun. It took him 15 pitches to top 80 mph. He topped out at 82 mph. Somehow, he worked a scoreless inning, allowing only an infield single.
"I wasn't hurting at all," Cordero said. "I didn't have enough time to warm up."
That, in effect, is what Cordero told Acta and General Manager Jim Bowden in a 15-minute, closed-door meeting, that a communication gaffe caused him to warm up late. But there is widespread concern about Cordero, and Acta said he could not afford to use his closer in a closer's role unless and until he gets his normal zip on his fastball. The situation leaves the club with setup man Jon Rauch as the closer, seventh-inning specialists Luis Ayala and Saúl Rivera as setup men -- and Cordero with little idea when and if he'll get back to the role in which he became an all-star in 2005.
"What do you do?" Acta said. "He says he's fine. He has no pain. He's going to continue to pitch. Just right now we're going to have to pick and choose our spots, because I really don't feel right now, the way he's throwing the ball, I should trust him to save a game here."
Cordero, 26, already has had an eventful season, and he's hardly pitched. His year thus far: sluggish velocity in spring training, a trip to the disabled list after feeling sharp pain while warming up Opening Night, brief rehabilitation stints to overcome tendinitis in his right shoulder, and two major league appearances in which his fastball hasn't approached its normal 89-91 mph.
The club has seen an MRI exam on Cordero's shoulder, and it revealed no damage. Bowden said he spoke with the athletic training staff about having Cordero perform his exercise routine after he pitches rather than before, and Cordero will begin taking anti-inflammatories "as a precaution."
"The MRI didn't show any injury," Bowden said. "That's all we know -- not that MRIs are always right, either. I have seen this happen before, and then the guy gets loose and does well after that. So it's very possible. We'll see how he looks the next time out and keep watching. But sure, we're all concerned about it. We have to be."
By the time the Nationals called for Cordero on Wednesday night, the game was all but decided. Left-hander Matt Chico was torched for three homers -- the first on a slider to former National Ryan Church, the next on a poorly placed 0-2 fastball to shortstop José Reyes, the last a crushing, three-run blast on a first-pitch change-up to Carlos Beltrán.
The Nationals' offensive problems continued, even as Acta tweaked his lineup. He moved struggling second baseman Ronnie Belliard into the second spot, dropped the club's hottest hitter, Lastings Milledge, down to fifth where he might be able to drive in some runs, and moved scuffling right fielder Austin Kearns to sixth. The results: two hits for Belliard, Kearns's first homer of the season -- and disasters everywhere else. The total: five hits. The focal point: third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who hit a sacrifice fly but twice failed with runners in scoring position, making him 1 for 19 in such situations.
"Take the quotes from yesterday," Acta said of the offense.
Cordero, though, has gone from being a constant to a concern. The origin of the problem, he said, was that when Acta and St. Claire sent word from the dugout that they wanted Cordero to get warm, the bullpen staff called on left-hander Ray King. Thus, Cordero didn't get up until the second hitter of the Nationals' eighth. He threw eight to 10 warmup pitches in the bullpen, then the eight he is allowed on the mound.
"I was still trying to loosen up my arm," he said. "I was doing everything I could to try and get it loose, and it just wasn't loose. I think the cold weather might have had something to do with it."
Acta and Bowden listened to that argument afterward. And, in fact, Cordero got away with what he had, striking out Angel Pagan, getting Brian Schneider to line out, allowing the infield hit to Luis Castillo and inducing a shallow fly ball from Marlon Anderson.
"If that isn't proof that it's all about location in this game, then I don't know what is," catcher Johnny Estrada said. "He's locating 78-mph fastballs and pitched a major league inning."
But he won't be allowed to attempt that protecting a one-run lead in the ninth. St. Claire said the team's upcoming trip to Florida, where warmer weather awaits, will help Cordero loosen up. "We just need him to get his arm strength back," St. Claire said.
Perhaps that's all it is. But at the end of a strange night, that's all the Nationals could do -- hope, and fret.
"At the end of the game,  pitches later, we didn't see any velocity," Acta said. "We're worried."