- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A warm summer afternoon possessed more than a hint of the unknown as baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline came and passed yesterday at RFK Stadium.

What was to follow contained a decidedly decreased level of drama: a meeting of two clubs safely ensconced near or at the bottom of their respective National League divisions.

On a day when some franchises loaded up for a playoff push and others stocked up on prospects, a matchup between the Washington Nationals and the Cincinnati Reds — two clubs whose playoff hopes for 2007 dissipated months ago — was downright anticlimactic.

Nevertheless, the Nationals emerged at the end of the night with their roster intact and their first winning month of the season with a 6-3 victory before 20,165.

The day began with trade rumors circulating about relievers Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch. It ended with Cordero earning his 22nd save, anchoring another superb effort from a steady bullpen as the Nationals (46-60) wrapped up a 14-12 July.

It is a sight fans have become accustomed to in the three seasons since the club moved to Washington and one almost assured to continue through the rest of this season after general manager Jim Bowden refused to deal his closer at the deadline.

“I know for sure that we are going to win more games now that they’re staying because that’s our strength,” manager Manny Acta said. “Once we go past the fifth and we have a lead or we’re tied, we feel pretty good about ourselves. I didn’t want to see anybody leave, and to substitute those two guys or either one of them, it would have been tough.”

There is always a chance to make a move after sliding a player through waivers as the Nationals did last year when they dealt Livan Hernandez to Arizona. One of the prizes of that deal was Matt Chico, the only starter to remain a rotation fixture since Opening Day.

In fact, the rookie started on Deadline Day for Washington. Chico (5-6) labored to make it through five innings as he meandered in and out of danger but generally escaped damage against the underwhelming Reds (45-62).

That changed with two outs in the fifth, when he yielded two runs on four straight hits before mercifully retiring pitcher Bobby Livingston to finish the inning.

“I didn’t feel all that great out there and was trying to find my location,” Chico said. “I ended up getting out of some jams. With the fifth inning, you can only make it out of so many.”

Chico was quickly pinch-hit for, and it seemed the southpaw was headed to yet another no-decision in a year littered with them.

So many of his solid efforts this season have gone unrewarded in the mercurial and often misleading wins metric. Five of his quality starts have ended in no-decisions or losses, but this humdrum outing was destined to net him a victory.

That was because the Nationals proceeded to produce a rare five-run fifth, their biggest inning since a six-run outburst at Florida on July 13.

The rally began with a single and a walk before Felipe Lopez and Ronnie Belliard laced hits up the middle. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman then ripped a bases-loaded double into the right-center gap, giving Washington a 4-2 lead and maneuvering Chico into position for a win.

“This one kind of made up for one of those where he had given us a chance and we hadn’t got him a ‘W,’ ” Acta said. “It wasn’t pretty, but he ended up getting it.”

Nevertheless, the most searing image of the night came in the sixth, when reliever Saul Rivera deflected a sharp comebacker toward the right side. Belliard quickly changed direction, lunged at the redirected ball and in one motion swept it toward Lopez for a force play.

“I got lucky,” Belliard said. “I don’t practice something like that. It happened in the game. I did it in batting practice, but it’s been a long time. Manny doesn’t like that. He’s a guy that says, ‘Hey, just go out there and get your work done.’ … Sometimes, I don’t think. It just happened in the moment.”

The play prevented Cincinnati from constructing a bigger inning than a run and also was the only time the Nationals’ relief corps was seriously challenged. Rivera worked two innings before Luis Ayala worked a scoreless eighth.

Cordero then needed just nine pitches to retire the Reds in the ninth, ending the game with a reminder that a potential moment of tumult for the franchise had in fact turned out to be just another ordinary day.

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