- The Washington Times - Friday, June 10, 2005

Four things you can be sure of when the Washington Nationals take the field at RFK Stadium these days: (1) Nick Johnson’s going to come through with a clutch hit, (2) Livan Hernandez, if he’s pitching, is going to throw a strong ballgame, (3) Chad Cordero’s going to make it interesting in the ninth and (4) the Nationals are still going to win.

It’s Washington’s version of a perfect storm — and that has nothing to do with the cloudburst that delayed the first pitch of last night’s 4-3 victory over the Oakland Athletics by 13 minutes.

The Nationals haven’t needed the weather’s help to strike lightning in a bottle. All it has taken is some consistent pitching and the emergence of a star first baseman to propel Washington to seven straight wins and a sustained stranglehold on first place in the National League East.

The Nationals (34-26) have resided alone atop the division for five days now, and they’re showing no signs of relinquishing their post after sweeping the A’s in three games. With the equally struggling Seattle Mariners coming to RFK this weekend, the Nationals have a chance to complete a fabulous, 13-game homestand in style and head west to Anaheim on a high.

Not that Washington, which owns the NL’s best home record at 21-9, is eager to leave town.

“We’ve gotten comfortable real quickly in this ballpark,” manager Frank Robinson said.

Hernandez (9-2) has been comfortable wherever he’s pitched. The ace right-hander has won eight straight decisions, posted nine pre-All-Star break wins for the first time in his career and is on pace to win 24 games.

In his last 10 outings, Hernandez is 8-0 with a 2.61 ERA and 10 quality starts — perhaps the best extended stretch of his career.

“But I don’t think about that,” he said. “I come in here, do my job and try to win more games.”

Win No. 9 did not come without its tense moments. Hernandez departed after eight innings, having allowed two runs on eight hits while throwing 127 pitches. It wasn’t quite his 150-pitch masterpiece of six nights before, but it was more than enough to get the job done — thanks in large part to the support of Johnson’s three-run double in the third.

Seeing no reason to extend his ace any farther, Robinson turned the ninth inning over to Cordero, and the 23-year-old closer responded the way he usually does — by making Robinson sweat profusely before ultimately closing it out.

Cordero allowed singles to Nick Swisher and Mark Ellis but appeared to get out of the two-out jam unscathed when Jason Kendall hit a sharp grounder to third. Vinny Castilla tried for the force at second, but Carlos Baerga — filling in again for Jamey Carroll — dropped the high throw. Swisher scored, and suddenly it was a 4-3 game with the tying run on third.

In the Nationals’ clubhouse, Hernandez watched nervously on television while talking to his mother, who was watching back home in South Florida, over the phone. In the dugout, Robinson felt those butterflies start churning, just like they seem to do every time Cordero pitches.

“He just seems to walk a tightrope when he comes out there,” Robinson said. “But the key is he gets the job done. You twist and you turn over there in the dugout, but in the end, he gets the job done.”

Sure enough, Cordero closed it out. He got Bobby Crosby to ground out to end the game and earned his 17th save, tying him with St. Louis’ Jason Isringhausen and Pittsburgh’s Jose Mesa for the league lead.

“Every time I go on the mound, I tend to make things interesting,” Cordero said. “It’s starting to wear me down a little bit. I hope I can get out of it pretty quick the next couple times out.”

Cordero found himself in another save situation because his Nationals teammates came through with a four-run fourth to take a rare early lead. Johnson provided the biggest hit, a bases-clearing double off A’s rookie Joe Blanton (1-6) that scored Hernandez, Ryan Church and Jose Guillen.

It was only the latest clutch hit for the 26-year-old first baseman, who has raised his average to .341 thanks to a brilliant homestand (17-for-32, 10 RBI).

The only stat more impressive than that is Johnson’s batting average with runners in scoring position: .438. He seems to have mastered the art of clutch hitting, a skill shared by only a handful of big-time major leaguers.

“[Good clutch hitters] don’t get carried away with the moment,” Robinson said. “They don’t get uptight and lose focus and try to do too much. I think Nick focuses better with men on base than he does with nobody on. He really zeroes in on what he wants to do in those situations. He just keeps his cool.”

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