- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 14, 2006

ATLANTA — It may be too late to start passing out blindfolds to the Washington Nationals shell-shocked bullpen.

Unfortunately, with club ownership in flux, there’s nothing the team can do to quickly fix an ongoing disaster.

The Nationals’ fragile psyche was severely damaged on Wednesday when Cincinnati’s Ken Griffey Jr. belted a walk-off three-run homer. One would think there is no way it could get any worse. Think again.

Atlanta’s Jeff Francoeur hit a walk-off grand slam with two outs in the ninth off Nationals closer Chad Cordero to rally the Braves to an improbable 8-5 victory before 37,040 last night at Turner Field.

This devastating loss may reverberate all season for the Nationals (12-25), who have suffered two crushing defeats in their last three games. The Nationals didn’t lose these type of games last year when the bullpen was one of the strengths of the team.

Even with manager Frank Robinson ejected for the second time this season in the seventh inning by home plate umpire John Hirschbeck, the Nationals couldn’t have asked for a better situation: a two-run lead and Cordero coming in to finish things up.

“It was kind of obvious what I did, I [stunk],” said Cordero, who allowed five runs on five hits in just 2/3 of an inning. “Pitching is getting three outs and I couldn’t do it tonight.”

Cordero, who last season led the majors with 47 saves, blew his second save opportunity of the season and fell to 1-1.

The inning started badly. Braves catcher Brian McCann led off the ninth with a solo homer to close the Nationals lead to 5-4. Three singles with a fielder’s choice loaded the bases with one out and Andruw Jones at the plate. Cordero fanned the dangerous Jones to bring up Francoeur. With a 1-0 count, Cordero hung a slider and Francoeur deposited it into the left-field stands.

“What you can’t do and what we don’t start doing is looking to lose, expecting to lose,” said Robinson, whose Nationals lost the second series on this three-city, nine-game road trip. “If you do that, it’s going to be a long year.”

Nationals starter Mike O’Connor was in line for the win. The rookie allowed three runs on six hits and faced one batter in the sixth inning before Robinson pulled him. O’Connor, making just his fourth major league start, walked just two and struck out four on 82 pitches.

“I felt good besides that first inning,” O’Connor said. “I felt better out there, letting the ball go, better than the last time out.”

O’Connor ran into some first-inning trouble against the Braves, who scored two runs.

Braves shortstop Edgar Renteria, who came into this game hitting .412 against left-handers and ranking third in the National League with a .345 batting average, singled up the middle with one out. Renteria, who had his career-best 24-game hitting streak snapped Wednesday against the Florida Marlins, promptly stole second to put himself in scoring position and scored on Jones’ single to left.

Meanwhile, Francoeur extended his hitting streak to 11 games when he blasted a double that bounced off the right-center field wall that easily scored Jones for a 2-0 Braves lead.

But O’Connor rebounded, striking out the side in the second. He struck out Jones to end the third inning with Marcus Giles at third base.

The Nationals had been able to get one run back in the third inning on a Jose Guillen sacrifice fly to the center field warning track that scored Jose Vidro and narrowed the Braves lead to 2-1. Backup catcher Matt LeCroy tied the game 2-2 in the fourth inning with his second home run of the season to lead off the inning.

O’Connor retired the side in the fourth but made a mistake to catcher Todd Pratt in the fifth.

Pratt hit his first home run of the season to lead off the fifth inning and the Braves claimed a 3-2 lead.

In addition to his pitching exploits, O’Connor stunned the home crowd with his first big-league hit and his first major league RBI, which helped spark the Nationals’ three-run sixth inning. Trailing 3-2 after Pratt’s blast to right-center field, Royce Clayton started the two-out rally with a double down the right-field line that landed just fair in the corner.

With Braves starter Jorge Sosa already in the 90s with his pitch count, O’Connor went the opposite way with a hard single to left field that scored Clayton and the Nationals tied the game 3-3. With Sosa tiring and the Braves bullpen up and throwing, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox left his winless starter in the game one batter too many.

Alfonso Soriano made Cox pay for his indecision by blasting an 0-2 pitch to the deepest part of the ballpark for a 5-3 Nationals lead. Soriano’s team-leading 11th home run was his third hit in his last eight at-bats since being moved back into the leadoff role.


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