Nationals 5, Braves 4
From the dugout, Chad Cordero looked just fine. Never mind that he gave up a home run to allow the Atlanta Braves within one run -- for the second straight day. Never mind that it was followed by two straight singles, and the Braves had runners on first and third with just one out.
"Nothing seems to bother this kid," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said.
On the mound, though, the vantage point is a tad different. Cordero was bothered.
"My heart was racing, man," he said.
Yet the Nationals had done too much to get to this point in the ninth, and their bullpen is on too much of a roll, to let a little pitter-patter in their closer's chest overwhelm them. So Cordero responded with emphatic strikeouts of Brayan Pena and Rafael Furcal to close out a dramatic, come-from-behind 5-4 victory over the Braves last night at RFK Stadium, the Nationals' third win in a row and one that will have them checking the standings in the National League East -- yet again.
"I managed to step it up when I needed to," said Cordero, who recorded his 10th straight save and 13th in 15 opportunities. "I just wish I didn't have to put myself and the team in that kind of spot."
Cordero, however, is forgiven for allowing Julio Franco's homer in the ninth, because the spot the Nationals find themselves in is just 11/2 games behind the front-running Braves and Florida Marlins in the NL East. A four-game sweep against Atlanta -- however unlikely -- would conceivably put the Nationals in first by Friday, when the Marlins come to town. This from a team that managed to score five runs last night for just the second time in 14 games, one that was picked by nearly everyone to finish dead last in the division.
"I have faith in this ballclub," Robinson said.
When the Nationals collect key hits, as they did last night, there is reason to have faith. Right fielder Jose Guillen capped a 3-for-4 evening with a game-tying RBI single in the seventh, and first baseman Nick Johnson followed with the big blow, a two-run double that brought the Nationals all the way back from a 3-0 deficit to take a 5-3 lead.
As Guillen crossed the plate, scoring from first on Johnson's double, and the 29,512 roared their approval, he forcefully slapped high-fives with teammates. The play encapsulates what the Nationals' offense has to do to compete. Guillen said the RBI single helped him feel "much more confident" at the plate, because he entered the night hitting just .189 with runners in scoring position. And Johnson's double -- a rocket down the right field line -- was his second hit of the night, the latest example of how valuable he has become, what with his team-leading .322 average and 30 RBI.
"I think his back has been hurting him," Guillen said of Johnson, "the way he's been carrying this team the last few weeks."
Yet there is no more crucial part of the Nationals' success than the last few men in the bullpen, particularly setup men Luis Ayala and Gary Majewski. Starter John Patterson returned from the disabled list to allow just one hit and one run in his five innings, as good as the Nationals could have hoped. Still, Washington trailed 3-2 headed into the seventh.
That's when managing becomes elementary for Robinson. Hand the ball to Ayala, and he produced a 1-2-3 seventh. Hand the ball to Majewski, and he allowed a one-out walk before striking out Kelly Johnson and getting Chipper Jones to ground out in the eighth.
The numbers, now, are impressive. Ayala and Majewski have combined for a 1.99 ERA. Majewski has now appeared in 20 games. He has allowed three runs once, and no runs in the other 19.
"You got a guy throwing 92 to 95 mph, throwing it in, throwing it away, throwing his curveball, throwing his change-up," center fielder Brad Wilkerson said of Majewski. "He looks really good right now. He looks confident."
Which is just the way Cordero looks, even if he isn't. Monday, he allowed a homer to Andruw Jones, but closed out a 3-2 victory. Last night, with runners on, he pumped his fastball to Pena and Furcal up to 93 mph, when he normally tops out at 91.
"He seems to understand the urgency of the situation when it gets close and tight," Robinson said.
As do the Nationals, who are 11-6 in one-run games. They flirt with danger, losing five in a row last week, and allowing Atlanta its comeback chance last night. Yet each day, they pick up the paper, and are still very much in the race.
"To be where we're at right now, we're very happy," Wilkerson said. "I think our best baseball's ahead of us."