- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

The emotional swing — all of it coming in the span of about 15 minutes — was enough to warrant a month’s worth of psychiatric visits and a case of Prozac.

From the lowest of lows, to the highest of highs, back down to even lower depths — that’s the ride the Washington Nationals went on yesterday during a 9-7 loss to the Atlanta Braves. What could have been perhaps their most uplifting win of the year turned into perhaps their most devastating loss.

“That was a roller coaster,” left fielder Ryan Church said. “But that’s why they’re the Braves, 13 [straight division titles] going on 14.”

There will be no division title for the Nationals (73-71) this year — that much we’ve known for some time. And there’s less reason each day to believe there will be a wild-card berth either, though amazingly this club remains just four games out heading into the season’s final three weeks.

And oh how close they came yesterday to cutting the deficit to three games.

Down six runs in the sixth inning and four in the eighth, the Nationals stormed back to take the lead on rookie Ryan Zimmerman’s two-out RBI single. What remained of the crowd of 31,834 at RFK Stadium made the old girl shake one more time, believing this team had rediscovered its lost magic from May and June.

And then disaster. Closer Chad Cordero, owner of the franchise single-season saves record, gave it all right back to the Braves. Needing one more out to end the game, he served up a two-run homer to Chipper Jones followed by a solo homer to Andruw Jones — a pair of daggers through the hearts of Washington fans and players alike.

“It’s terrible. I feel bad,” said Cordero, now 44-for-50 in save opportunities. “Those other guys were out there all day battling, and then I come in for one inning and I blew it.”

But it defied logic that the Nationals were even in position to win. With his starting rotation decimated by injuries, manager Frank Robinson had no choice but to send out a revolving door of relievers — eight, as it turned out — to go up against former Cy Young Award winner John Smoltz.

For six innings, it was a lopsided proposition. The Braves feasted on Jason Bergmann, Travis Hughes, John Halama et al for six runs, while the Nationals looked helpless against Smoltz.

But Rick Short and Nick Johnson connected for back-to-back homers in the sixth to make it 6-2. And when the Braves took the field in the eighth, Smoltz (battling a stiff shoulder) remained on the bench as Blaine Boyer trotted in from the bullpen. Then the Nationals, who have rallied from at least four runs down against the Braves’ bullpen in the last two weeks alone, sprang to life.

“When they took Smoltz out, it was pretty much a blessing for us,” Church said. “That’s what we want to do: get into their bullpen.”

Down four runs, Washington needed baserunners. Cristian Guzman and Marlon Byrd complied by drawing leadoff walks. Brad Wilkerson singled to right, scoring Guzman with the first run. Short then was awarded first base after left-hander John Foster’s pitch bounced in the dirt and ricocheted off the batter’s leg.

The craziness was just getting started. Johnson launched a hard grounder down the first-base line that skipped up and caught Atlanta’s Adam LaRoche on the right temple. The ball rolled to the railing of the Braves’ dugout as the basepaths became a flurry of Nationals. Byrd scored. Wilkerson scored. Short rounded second, looked around for help, got none and decided to stay. Behind him, Johnson stayed at first with a wild two-run single that made it 6-5.

Jose Guillen then moved the runners to second and third with a fly out to center, Johnson surprising everyone by tagging up from first. Short then came in to score the tying run on Church’s sacrifice fly to left.

Finally, Zimmerman — the 20-year-old making his second career start — completed the rally by lacing a 1-2 pitch from Chris Reitsma into center field. The Nationals led 7-6, having once again come back against the Braves.

“We’ve had good success against their bullpen,” Robinson said. “Now, scoring five runs in one inning against them, you’re not looking for that. But you feel like you’ve got a good chance to get back in the ballgame.”

All Washington needed now was three outs from, statistically, the best closer in baseball. And though Cordero (2-4) gave up a leadoff single to Julio Franco, all looked fine when he retired the next two batters on fly outs.

Standing in the way, though, were the Joneses, as deadly a duo as there is in the league. Cordero fell behind 2-0 to Chipper, then left a fastball up and cringed as he watched it sail into the right-center field mezzanine for a two-run homer. The sting had barely worn off when Andruw turned on an 0-2 pitch and sent it deep to left field for his 49th home run, second of the day and fourth of this three-game series.

“I messed up,” Cordero said. “It was totally my fault.”

Afterward, inside a tense home clubhouse, emotions ranged from devastation to determination to dissatisfaction.

“Sometimes you see guys who don’t really care,” Guillen said. “But what are you going to do? It’s a long season. A lot of guys here are tired, or they want to go home.”

Responded Wilkerson, whose differences with Guillen are well-known: “If people have problems with people not wanting to win, then you need to tell them. That’s the bottom line. Not try to say it through [the media]. That’s not the right way to do it. If there’s a problem with this team not wanting to win, I think we need to take care of it within our team.”

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