A July 27 Sports article incorrectly indicated that Washington Nationals reliever Chad Cordero pitched against the Atlanta Braves in the top of the ninth inning of the previous day's game. Cordero pitched in the bottom of the ninth for the visiting Nationals. (Published 8/4/2005)

Braves 3, Nationals 2

All year long he had been the best part of the best story in baseball, the little right-hander from a place called Chino, the one with the flat-brimmed cap and the fastball that buckled knees. For half a season, Chad Cordero blew away the National League, hopping after every save, clapping his glove and making the improbable seem possible.

Then Tuesday night he stood on the mound in the most important game of the year, with the drums pounding and 43,308 doing the Tomahawk Chop. And suddenly, in the heat of the first pennant race Washington has known in generations, he looked very, very ordinary.

The Braves pounded three straight fastballs from Cordero in the top of the ninth of a game he was supposed to save, but instead left to Luis Ayala to lose, 3-2, in the 10th.

Later in a silent clubhouse, with the Nationals in second place for the first time since June 5, their newest pitcher, Mike Stanton, shook his head.

"It looks like [the Braves] did their homework," he said. "They knew he throws first-pitch strikes and they usually are fastballs away and when he threw them they didn't miss them."

So now even the bullpen fails them. For most of four months the Nationals could at least rely on one thing working even when the injuries came and the offense disappeared. They could expect a game taken to the ninth with a lead was going to belong to them. After all, they were 50-1 in such situations before Tuesday night.

And they were on the brink of doing it again, after managing to pull together two runs against one of the National League's most dominant starters -- John Smoltz -- with one more wonderful game from Livan Hernandez.

They were up a run and the bullpen door was swinging open. That usually means the night is over.

"The bullpen didn't do its job," Washington Manager Frank Robinson said.

The manager would not buy into the notion that the rest of the league has caught up to Cordero 34 saves into the year. He was asked if the reliever has been relying too much on the fastball and he snapped that Cordero has more than one pitch and uses them all. He also rejected the notion that the reliever had come into too big a moment for someone just 23, saying, "Don't read too much into what happened."

But in the top of the ninth, Cordero gave up a rocket to Andruw Jones that hit the fence on one hop for a double, then a line drive single to center from Chipper Jones that was hit so hard Andruw Jones had to stop at third, then a long fly ball slammed to right field by Adam LaRoche to tie the game.

Cordero may well have lost right there in the ninth had catcher Brian Schneider not made a perfect throw to catch Chipper Jones trying to steal second.

Not that it mattered, for in the 10th, the Braves put runners on first and third off Stanton. With two outs, Robinson called for Ayala, who threw six balls in seven pitches -- hitting Marcus Giles to load the bases and walking Andruw Jones on four throws to end the night.

Later Robinson threw up his hands over Ayala's last pitch.

"It was 3-0," he said of the count. "You think [Jones] is swinging 3-0? No. If he is, let him. To me it looked like he was trying to make a perfect pitch on the corner. It was 3-0. Where are you going 3-0?"

Then he slumped in his chair.

The bullpen squandered one of Hernandez's best outings of the year. A game in which the big right-hander labored through a thick, stagnant night, throwing every pitch he had to seemingly out-duel Smoltz, 2-1. Hernandez threw 105 pitches in the sweltering evening.

After the eighth, which he ended with an 89-mph fastball that touched the corner, striking out Giles, he walked off the mound thinking he could go another inning. But with his knees sore all year and Cordero firing fastballs in the bullpen, he looked at Robinson and said, "That's it."

"You have the best closer in the game," Hernandez said.

Only this time Cordero could not do what he had done so many times already this year and finish off yet another one-run game.

Sometime afterward, after most of the clubhouse had emptied of players, Robinson was asked if his offense had maybe once again failed the Nationals. The manager wiped his head with a towel and said no.

"We got eight hits," he said. "We had enough runs to win this game tonight. You've got to get three outs and we didn't get them."

Cordero was not around after reporters left Robinson's office. Maybe there wasn't much he could say. He seemed so shocked by the three rockets off three pitches that perhaps he might still have been stunned.

From in front of a nearby locker, Stanton said he wouldn't be worried about the closer who just had his first taste of true adversity.

"I doubt it will affect him too much," Stanton said. "He's got a pretty stable personality."

They have to hope he's right.

Jose Guillen tries to take out Rafael Furcal during an eighth-inning double play. Marcus Giles is in the background. Atlanta broke a tie for the NL East lead.Andruw Jones, left, celebrates with Brian McCann after scoring the tying run on a sacrifice fly in the ninth.Brad Wilkerson robs Chipper Jones of a homer. But in the end, Manager Frank Robinson said, "The bullpen didn't do its job."Braves pitcher John Smoltz, above, was nearly as good as Livan Hernandez, who left the game after eight innings with a 2-1 lead.