- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 21, 2007

MIAMI — If 2007 is supposed to be a season of learning for the Washington Nationals, this team is going to have to learn how to put away opposing teams with ease.

Despite their better play of late, the Nationals are having trouble closing games. Last night, they blew a five-run lead against the Florida Marlins, yet somehow hung on to win 6-5 in a 14-inning marathon at Dolphin Stadium.

Chris Snelling, who scored the winning run in Wednesday night’s 13-inning win over the Philadelphia Phillies at RFK Stadium, drove home the game-winner this time. His two-out smash to first ate up Florida’s Mike Jacobs, allowing Ryan Church to come screaming around third and score when catcher Miguel Olivo couldn’t handle Jason Wood’s throw to the plate.

Thus ended a wild affair, the Nationals’ second game of 13 or more innings in three nights. Just as they did Wednesday, they overcame a blown save by Chad Cordero, getting five combined shutout innings of relief from Micah Bowie, Jesus Colome (2-0) and Saul Rivera (who earned his second career save after stranding the tying run on third in the 14th).

“Tough one, but that’s why I love this game,” manager Manny Acta said. “The main thing is we won the ballgame.”

Washington (6-11) managed to win for the fifth time in eight games, but they may have suffered a significant injury in the process. Starter Shawn Hill, who dominated for five innings, strained his left shoulder diving into third base in the sixth. Hill, who is also battling a tight right forearm, remained in the game to pitch one more inning, but the shoulder bothered him enough to leave.

He will be examined by a doctor today as the team awaits word on its best starting pitcher.

“I jammed my shoulder,” Hill said. “I don’t know exactly what’s wrong with it, but I’ll see the doctor tomorrow and make sure nothing’s too serious.”

Hill was long out of the game by the time Cordero entered with two outs in the eighth, clinging to a 5-4 lead. The 25-year-old closer got into the ninth with no problems. Then pinch-hitter Cody Ross led off the inning with a monstrous, 440-foot homer to left, a game-tying homer that resulted in Cordero’s second blown save in three tries this season.

The right-hander has been stunningly ineffective to date, posting a 5.40 ERA in eight games, allowing 12 hits, seven walks and two homers in 81/3 innings.

So what to make of Cordero’s sub-par performance? Is he simply rusty from a lack of use in save situations, or is there a greater concern here?

“He’s struggling pitching behind in the count,” Acta said. “It’s only two weeks, and he’s my closer. By no means am I going to give up on him.”

Of course, Jon Rauch was just as much to blame for last night’s blown lead as Cordero. The setup man inherited a 5-2 lead in the eighth and almost gave it all back. A 430-foot, opposite-field, two-run homer by Joe Borchard trimmed the lead to a run, and when Rauch followed that up with back-to-back singles, the Nationals were suddenly facing a tense situation.

How grateful, then, was Acta to have Church in center field to make what at the time looked like the game-saving play? Church fielded Olivo’s single up the middle and fired a two-hop bullet to third to nail potential tying run Aaron Boone, thwart the Florida rally and allow Cordero to come on and strike out Alfredo Amezaga to send the game to the ninth.

The late Marlins rally ruined a fabulous performance by Hill, who continued his early season run by allowing two runs over six stellar innings. The 25-year-old right-hander further cemented his status as the Nationals’ most-reliable, most-effective starter by carrying a no-hitter into the fifth and a shutout into the sixth.

Hill was the victim of poor run support his first two times out, but his teammates have caught on recently and realized they only need to give him a few early runs to make his life a lot easier.

So even though the Nationals again failed to score a first inning run (extending their season-long streak of futility to 17 games) they didn’t wait much longer to get on the board. Back-to-back doubles by Austin Kearns and Church gave them a second-inning lead, and when Michael Restovich singled in Church a few minutes later, the lead became 2-0.

Then, the big blow. With two on and two out in the fourth, Ronnie Belliard crushed a pitch that was down below his knees and deposited it over the out-of-town scoreboard in left field for a three-run homer.

For Washington, a team for which leads have been precious commodities, this was something of a breakthrough. For the first time all season, this team held a five-run lead.

Turns out it could have used even more.

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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