- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 24, 2005

With the Washington Nationals’ recent string of losses, closer Chad Cordero hadn’t seen much work this week.

But with the Nationals leading the Houston Astros 4-2 after eight innings last night, manager Frank Robinson called upon Cordero as usual to polish off the Astros at RFK Stadium. But at first, it looked like Robinson’s fear that Cordero was rusty might come true.

Cordero gave up a leadoff single to Morgan Ensberg and another to Adam Everett after striking out Jason Lane. However, he settled down to retire the next two batters for his major league-leading 34th save.

Cordero hadn’t pitched since Tuesday, when the Nationals defeated Colorado 4-0 before losing their next three games.

Robinson had promised Cordero would take the mound before the Houston series ended, even if not in a save situation, so the 23-year-old wouldn’t become tight just sitting in the bullpen.

Before the game, Cordero wasn’t worried about being rusty. He pitched twice against the Rockies earlier this week and continued to throw in the bullpen to keep loose.

Cordero even put a positive spin on the lack of work, saying it allowed him to be well-rested later in the season. He faded toward the end of last season, finishing with a 7-3 record, 14 saves and a 2.94 ERA.

“It’s a good time to get some rest and be ready for when August and September come around,” Cordero said. “You always want to go out there and pitch. Having to sit down there and not play is tough, but I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.”

Cordero now has converted 34 of 37 save opportunities and has a 1.05 ERA, best among major league relievers.

Braves next up

No one on the Nationals will admit being worried about upcoming opponents, but with the Atlanta Braves looming next on the schedule, the series from Tuesday to Thursday has implications that could be felt well into September.

The Nationals and Braves entered play last night tied for first in the National League East after Atlanta furiously made up ground the past month while the Nationals foundered.

Washington dropped to 7-12 in July with a 14-1 loss to the Houston Astros on Friday night. The slump allowed the Braves, who were 10-7 this month after winning 10 of their last 14 in June, to crawl back into the division race and augmented the importance of the teams’ first series since May 30-June 2.

“They caught up some ground,” Robinson said. “It’s ups and downs in this game. [The bottom of the NL East], they’re moving up. Right now the main focus is getting this club back on track.”

“Said outfielder/first baseman Brad Wilkerson: “We’ve got to take care of our own business. If we don’t, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing. It’s not about the Braves; it’s about us playing good baseball. Everyone needs to have a more positive attitude. We’re still [four] games up in the wild card. We have a great opportunity ahead of us. It’s going to be a big road trip.”

Patchwork lineup

The makeshift nature of the Nationals’ lineup throughout the season finally may be catching up with the team.

Washington’s Opening Day infield of Nick Johnson, Jose Vidro, Cristian Guzman and Vinny Castilla have not started a game together since May 4, and the Nationals have used 47 players so far this season, the most in the majors.

Second baseman Vidro came back from a partially torn tendon in his left ankle July 5 against the New York Mets. First baseman Johnson hasn’t played since June 26 against the Toronto Blue Jays but continued his rehabilitation from a bruised right heel last night at Class AAA New Orleans.

Guillen injures knee

Right fielder Jose Guillen left the game in the ninth inning with a bruised left knee after colliding with the tarp chasing a foul pop down the right-field line in the sixth. Guillen is listed as day-to-day and is expected to play today in the series finale against Houston.

• Staff writer Ken Wright contributed to this article.

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