- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2006

CHICAGO — Frank Robinson strode to the mound late yesterday afternoon with a look in his eye that Washington Nationals pitchers know all too well.

The Nationals were one out away from solidifying a much-needed, 5-3 win over the Chicago Cubs, but the victory was hardly sealed at the time. Closer Chad Cordero had just walked Jacque Jones to put runners on the corners, then threw a first-pitch ball to Neifi Perez, the potential winning run.

So Robinson, the 70-year-old manager hampered in recent days by back spasms, walked right up to Cordero and made his point very clear.

“He just asked if I was the man, if I was the man for the job,” Cordero said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll get him out right here.’ ”

Cordero ultimately was the man, but he certainly was aided by Perez, who stunned everyone at Wrigley Field when he bunted the next pitch to the left of the pitcher’s mound. Cordero calmly scooped up the ball and fired to first to end the game.

“The third baseman was way back,” Perez said of his decision to bunt. “He wouldn’t have had a chance to throw me out. I didn’t get the job done.”

The Nationals, who won for only the second time in eight games, were happy to accept Perez’s gift out.

“I think it shocked everybody,” Cordero said. “But hey, if he wants to do that, go ahead.”

Perhaps Washington (14-27) was due a break like this. After a miserable road trip that already had featured two losses on walk-off home runs, this team needed to avoid a sweep at the hands of the Cubs.

The Nationals did so in most surprising fashion, getting a solid pitching performance from Ramon Ortiz (who earned his first win of the season) and battering around would-be Cubs ace Kerry Wood (who served up three homers in his first start since July 20, 2005).

Struggling to locate his fastball and curveball, the 28-year-old Wood cruised through an eight-pitch first inning before faltering after that. Ryan Zimmerman got to him first, hitting a solo homer into the left-field bleachers with one out in the second. Three batters later, backup shortstop Damian Jackson sent a two-run homer in the same direction, a stunning development in its own right.

Wood had made two minor league rehab starts, but the Nationals had no way to scout him. So on the advice of veterans like Jackson and Marlon Anderson (who had faced Wood in the past), they went up to the plate with a plan.

“Just try to stay aggressive and try to make him throw strikes,” said Jackson, who has just 30 career homers in parts of 11 major league seasons. “I was just able to capitalize.”

Alfonso Soriano added a solo shot of his own an inning later, his team-leading 13th homer of the season, and Anderson hit one in the sixth off reliever Will Ohman for Washington’s fourth homer of the game.

That put the Nationals up 5-0, but Ortiz (1-4) let the Cubs get back into it when he gave up three runs in the sixth. The damage might have been even worse if not for left-hander Mike Stanton, who entered with two on and one out but got Juan Pierre to ground into a rally-killing 1-4-3 double play.

“That was huge,” Robinson said. “That was probably the ballgame right there.”

But there were a few more moments of trepidation for the Washington manager and his players.

Gary Majewski needed to pitch out of jams in both the seventh and eighth innings, a big confidence boost for the right-handed setup man who had admittedly lost confidence in himself in the last month.

And then there was still the matter of Cordero battling his way through the ninth. With one out, Todd Walker doubled down the right-field line. He moved to third on Michael Barrett’s fly ball, then remained there as Jones walked.

Up came Perez with a chance to win the game and deal the Nationals another late-inning loss. But thanks to some strong words from Robinson and one surprising bunt by Perez, Cordero was able to close out a win with his fourth save and perhaps re-establish some faith in Washington’s beleaguered bullpen.

“We haven’t had that many of them this year, but that just shows you how important bullpens really are,” Stanton said. “Starters don’t go eight innings very often anymore. If you’re going to win, you have to have guys in the middle to get the ball to your closer.”

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