Braves 9, Nationals 7

Before the last out of the top of the ninth inning settled into the glove of Washington Nationals right fielder Jose Guillen, Chad Cordero began the painful walk back to his dugout, staring blankly. He took his glove off his left hand, then put it in his mouth, letting it dangle, swallowing the words of frustration he might have screamed if not for the impediment.

"I just wanted," he said later, "to throw stuff."

Following an afternoon in which the Nationals improbably and emotionally overcame a six-run deficit, the season may have been decided in the previous five minutes, when Cordero -- needing one out to save yet another victory -- served up a two-run home run to Chipper Jones, then watched a blast from the next batter, Andruw Jones, sail over the fence at RFK Stadium, his second homer of the day. Stunningly, a 7-6 lead turned into a 9-7 loss, one that closed a 10-game homestand in devastating fashion, and left Cordero -- perhaps the Nationals' most valuable player -- beating himself up.

"I messed up," he said, and the self-criticism began spilling out. At 23, Cordero is all laid-back California calm, but in assessing his performance at a crucial point, when the Nationals are barely hanging on to hopes of reaching the postseason, he couldn't find words harsh enough.

"It cost us a win," he said. "It cost us the game. It's terrible. I feel bad. The other guys, they went out there today, and they battled. And I come out there for one inning, and I blow it."

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in front of an announced crowd of 31,834, the Nationals could have written yet another story about how they staved off seemingly certain death. They used eight pitchers, none for more than two innings, and fell behind 6-0. Atlanta starter John Smoltz needed just 74 pitches to cruise through seven innings and left with a 6-2 lead. But when the Nationals got to the Braves' most glaring weakness -- a largely inexperienced and frequently incompetent bullpen -- they salivated. Smoltz's departure, Nationals outfielder Ryan Church said, "was pretty much a blessing for us."

Just 10 days earlier in Atlanta, Smoltz left with a 7-1 lead against the Nationals, only to have Washington come back to tie the game. Friday night, the Nationals trailed the Braves 6-2, yet came back for an 8-6 victory. There was reason for hope.

"Are you going to score five runs in one inning against them?" Manager Frank Robinson asked. "You're not looking at that."

Except that's precisely what happened. The eighth inning began with the first Atlanta reliever, Blaine Boyer, issuing walks to the only two men he faced. Next! What Chipper Jones would later call "a colossal breakdown in our bullpen" was just starting.

Brad Wilkerson drove in one run with a single. Rick Short was hit by a pitch. Nick Johnson followed with a two-run single off the head of Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche. And after Church tied the game with a sacrifice fly, rookie Ryan Zimmerman -- 20 years old, just more than three months removed from his junior season at the University of Virginia -- lined a two-out single to center to score Johnson from second, giving the Nationals the lead.

"It was stirring," Robinson said.

The formula, at that point, was simple. Turn to Cordero. "He gets the ball," Church said, "and it's pretty automatic."

Except not against Atlanta. Cordero, who leads the majors with 44 saves, has now blown six in 50 opportunities. Three of those have come against the Braves. And when Julio Franco led off the top of the ninth with a single, it ensured, barring a double play, that Chipper Jones would have a chance. So in a way, it didn't matter that the next two hitters, Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles, flied softly to left. The Braves still had a chance, and a good one at that.

"I know they don't want to face us," Chipper Jones said.

Cordero made it hard on himself by missing with the first two pitches.

"He made me pay for it," Cordero said.

That he did, sending a 2-0 fastball deep to right-center, getting the thousands of Braves fans out of their seats. Trailing 8-7, Cordero got two strikes on Andruw Jones, but then grooved another one, and Jones sent it to the mezzanine in left, his 49th of the season, his eighth against the Nationals, his fourth of this three-game series.

"Two pretty good hitters," was Robinson's assessment, and it was an understatement.

Such was the nature of the loss -- not to mention the Nationals' situation, trailing Houston in the National League wild-card race by four games with 18 to play -- that the emotional Guillen intimated that some of the Nationals aren't trying enough.

"Lots of times, you really need guys for motivation, guys trying to help your teammates," Guillen said. "And lots of times, you see a lot of guys, they don't really care. But what can you do? It's a long season, and probably a lot of guys here are tired, probably want to go home."

Wilkerson, with whom Guillen has clashed this season, was asked for his assessment.

"Man for man," he said, "if people have problems with people not wanting to win, then you need to tell them."

With just three weeks remaining in the season, with postseason hopes dwindling and an excruciating loss behind, the 50-31 start to the season, the 51/2-game lead in the division, all seemed distant.

"The team we have now, it's not even close to the team that we have in the first half," Guillen said.

He was asked what had changed.

"Everything," he said. Attitude? "Everything," he repeated.

Shortly thereafter, Cordero slung his backpack over his shoulder, pulled a black hat hard down on his head, and walked out of the clubhouse, carrying the weight of the latest disappointment along with him. It was, indeed, a September scene drastically different from the snippets from the first half.

Chipper Jones, left, and the Braves congratulate Andruw Jones after the second of his two home runs.Ryan Zimmerman delivers a run-scoring single in the bottom of the eighth inning, capping a five-run rally and giving the Nationals a 7-6 lead.