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Chico, Nats Struggling To Get the Job Done
Cubs 7, Nationals 0

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2008

Nationals Park is hosting a job fair. The company providing employment opportunities, the Washington Nationals, badly needs a starting pitcher and a closer. Matt Chico currently holds the first title, but his superiors are analyzing his performance and might be willing to consider worthy applicants. Chad Cordero is applying for the latter job, but the bosses simply don't know if he possesses the skill set to handle it.

All this after last night's 7-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs, a game in which Cubs right-hander Carlos Zambrano tossed seven shutout innings and the Nationals stranded 10 runners. Zambrano's performance, not to mention five RBI from the combination of Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramírez, meant the legions of Cubs fans who remained in the crowd of 35,188 for the last out went home quite happy, worried about none of the issues the Nationals have.

Start with Chico. He gave up five runs in the first two innings. His line: four innings, eight hits, five runs, all earned. His record is now 0-5, his ERA 6.68. He may need to reapply to keep his own job.

"We don't know," Manager Manny Acta said when asked how long he could stick with Chico. "We don't know yet. It's five more months of baseball. I'm not saying I might stick the whole season [with him] if he continues to pitch like this. It's only been a month. If we were going to take a month on guys that are struggling here, then there would be a lot of guys out of here by now."

Acta pointed out that he didn't receive the pointed questions he fielded about Chico on April 11, the night he spun eight innings of one-run ball against the Atlanta Braves. The reason the questioning changed: Chico's performance. In his three subsequent starts, he hasn't completed more than five innings, and has posted a 12.46 ERA.

"I've got to take a step back," Chico said.

Last night, according to catcher Johnny Estrada, Chico simply didn't have command of his fastball. The first three Cubs reached base, including Lee with an RBI single. Mark DeRosa put the Cubs up 3-0 with a two-run single in the first, and when Lee hit a two-run double in the second, the game was all but over.

Chico pointed out that the Cubs weren't crushing balls to the gaps. "I got the groundballs that I needed," he said, "but they were just out of the reach of everybody." Still, he knows he is not executing his pitches properly.

"I think [I'm] going up there, getting hit and getting right back on the mound and missing my spot, and I'm getting a little upset," Chico said. "Then I'm throwing the ball right over the plate. It keeps happening, and I keep doing it. I've got to settle down and think about what I'm doing."

All this comes at a time when the other Nationals starters -- John Lannan, who starts today's series finale against the Cubs, Tim Redding, Shawn Hill and Odalis Pérez -- have combined for an ERA of 3.66. So where does Chico fit now?

"Whatever happens is going to happen," he said. "I can't really worry about that."

Earlier in the month, right-hander Jason Bergmann -- whose repertoire is more dangerous than Chico's -- was demoted to Class AAA Columbus after two shaky starts and a bad relief appearance left him with a 11.68 ERA. Yet he is 0-2 with a 10.13 ERA after two starts in Columbus.

There are, however, other options. Lefty Mike O'Connor arrived from Columbus earlier in the week, and the intent is to use him as a long reliever. But Acta said O'Connor could be considered for a starter's spot should someone stumble. O'Connor went 2-0 with a 1.96 ERA in his four starts for Columbus before the Nationals called him up.

And then, there's perhaps the most intriguing option. Right-hander Collin Balester is the Nationals' top-ranked pitching prospect, a lanky 21-year-old who is 1-1 with a 2.66 ERA at Columbus. Nationals officials expect Balester to at least appear in the majors at some point this summer.

Chico knows all those names. He wants to take care of himself.

"I go back to, just, I'm pressing way too much right now," Chico said.

Cordero, conversely, appears not to be pressing at all. His outings these days can be bizarre. Last night, he pitched in the seventh inning of a game the Nationals trailed 5-0, his first appearance since a visit with noted orthopedist James Andrews on Wednesday. His line looks fine, an inning in which he struck out two and allowed only a single. In person, though, his fastball didn't register higher than 81 mph on the scoreboard radar gun.

"I'm kind of crossing my fingers," Cordero said, "but I think the scoreboard was a little bit slow today."

Acta, though, knows Cordero's velocity is not approaching the 89-91 mph that has always been his norm. "He said he doesn't feel anything wrong with his arm, so, I'm assuming he's fine," Acta said.

Still, Cordero is still fighting to get his old job back. Acta wants to see him one more time, and hopes he throws harder, before he makes him a closer again. The way Cordero figures it, he is not making $6.2 million to mop up.

"It's different," Cordero said. "It's difficult. But this is what I have to do to get my job back, and as long as I keep going out there and throwing up zeroes, eventually I hope I'll be able to get back in there. I want to get back in there now."

In a week, check back in with the Nationals. Who knows what jobs might be available?

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