- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 27, 2005

ATLANTA — It took Livan Hernandez 105 pitches to carry the Washington Nationals to the verge of perhaps their biggest win of the year.

It then took Chad Cordero and Luis Ayala a combined 10 pitches to throw it all away.

There wasn’t much else to say about last night’s 3-2, 10-inning loss to the Atlanta Braves, a loss that dropped the Nationals out of first place in the National League East for the first time since June4.

“All we had to do was get three outs,” manager Frank Robinson lamented. “We couldn’t do it tonight.”

Just when Washington looked on the verge of righting its wayward season, leave it to the Braves to deliver a harsh dose of reality, to state once again that this division is theirs until someone else knocks them off their lofty perch.

Not that the Nationals (55-45) didn’t put themselves in position to at least deliver a solid blow to their chief rivals last night. Behind Hernandez’s eight innings of five-hit ball, Washington took a 2-1 lead into the ninth inning and left the Turner Field crowd of 43,308 sweating things out.

As he has done so many times this season, Robinson put the game in the hands of Cordero, his unflappable 23-year-old closer who was 34-for-37 in save opportunities.

Make that 34-for-38. Cordero was greeted rudely, allowing the Braves (56-44) to tie the game in a span of three pitches. Andruw Jones doubled. Chipper Jones singled him to third. Adam LaRoche lofted a sacrifice fly to right.

Before Cordero knew what hit him, he had blown the lead. His aggressive, go-right-after-the-hitter approach had come back to haunt him this time.

“That’s the way it goes,” Robinson said. “That’s the way he comes after you.”

The rest was academic, though no less painful to watch. The Nationals went down in order in the top of the 10th, then handed Atlanta the game in the bottom of the inning.

Left-hander Mike Stanton (0-1) allowed a leadoff single to Brian McCann. Four batters later, Robinson summoned righty Ayala to face Marcus Giles with two on and two out, then cringed as Ayala plunked Giles on a 1-1 pitch and walked Andruw Jones on four straight to force in the winning run.

“I tried to throw a sinker to the middle [of the plate], but the pitch stayed up,” said Ayala of his game-ending, high-and-outside ball to Jones.

Ayala and catcher Brian Schneider argued with plate umpire Bruce Dreckman, believing the pitch was a strike, but Robinson said there was no reason for Ayala to leave things to chance in that situation.

“Throw a ball over the middle of the plate,” the manager said. “You think he’s swinging 3-0? No. And if he is, let him swing at that. It looked to me like he was trying to make the perfect pitch, outside corner.”

The bullpen’s late meltdown spoiled an otherwise impressive effort from the Nationals, who began the game with several bits of good news for a change. Nick Johnson was back in the lineup after a month-long stint on the disabled list. So was Vinny Castilla after sitting out the last week to rest his ailing left knee. Marlon Byrd was informed his two-game suspension for running into umpire Joe Brinkman had been lifted entirely. And, perhaps most significant of all, Jose Guillen remained in the lineup two days after getting drilled in the right hand by a fastball.

Guillen stayed in Washington on Monday to receive treatment, but he boarded a plane yesterday morning, rejoined the club in Atlanta and reiterated in no uncertain terms his commitment to this team.

He got off to a slow start, ending both the first and third innings on groundballs and failing to track down Andruw Jones’ liner to the gap (Jones wound up with a triple). But he was bailed out by his teammates, who strung together an impressive and — considering their recent offensive woes — surprising barrage of hits against John Smoltz.

Singles by Schneider and Brad Wilkerson in the third accounted for the Nationals’ first run. Two innings later, Guillen rapped an 0-2 pitch from Smoltz up the middle to bring Hernandez home with their second run.

The big right-hander took over from there, mowing down the Braves and leaving no doubt about the state of his wobbly right knee, just six days after saying he was “99.9 percent” sure he would need season-ending surgery.

He certainly looked like his old self last night, keeping the Braves off-balance with an assortment of off-speed stuff and keeping his pitch count to a relative minimum (105 over eight innings). His only hiccup came in the seventh, when LaRoche homered down the right-field line to make it 2-1.

One more scoreless inning from Hernandez, and Robinson decided it was time to hand things over to Cordero. Little did he know what torture awaited, that his club was about to blow a golden opportunity at an important win.

“When you’re beating Smoltz in the ninth inning, that’s a game you really need to win,” Stanton said. “Was it a must-win? No. It’s still only July. But if you can get to somebody’s ace, that’s a game you need to win.”

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