- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2008

NEW YORK — By the time Chad Cordero took the mound in the eighth inning, the story line of last night’s game between the Washington Nationals and the Mets — a 5-2 New York victory — appeared clear.

Despite a tweaked lineup filled out by manager Manny Acta, Washington’s offense remained mostly anemic. And with starter Matt Chico struggling to keep the ball inside Shea Stadium, the Nationals had little chance of snapping out of their two-week funk. They were about to lose for the 11th time in 12 games and at 4-11 were going to have the worst record in the major leagues.

By the time Cordero departed 20 labored pitches later, the score remained the same. The evening’s pre-eminent story line did not.

Looking like he was pitching with an injured arm, Cordero barely managed to crack 80 mph on the stadium radar gun. He somehow managed not to allow a run, but his stunning lack of velocity prompted Acta and general manager Jim Bowden to hold a 15-minute meeting with their closer and try to determine what was going on.

The answer, according to Cordero: Some confusion in the bullpen prevented him from getting enough warmup time, and on a chilly night in Queens, he never was able to get his arm loose, leading a string of “fastballs” that were clocked as low as 78 mph.

“Whenever you see someone throwing 79, that’s kind of a concern for everybody,” Cordero said. “But I told them exactly what it was. I didn’t have enough time to get ready.”

Cordero, who spent the season’s first two weeks on the disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis, insisted he was in no pain. The Nationals will take him at his word for now and not place him back on the DL. But Acta admitted the man who has saved 113 games the last three seasons must re-earn his trust before he can be used again in a tight situation.

“He has no pain, so he’s going to continue to pitch,” Acta said. “We’re just going to have to pick and choose our spots because I really don’t feel right now, with the way he’s throwing the ball, that I should trust him to save a game here.”

Cordero, who made his season debut Sunday, wasn’t expecting to be used last night with the Mets comfortably ahead. And when Randy St. Claire called the bullpen before the Nationals batted in the eighth, someone misheard the pitching coach and thought he wanted Ray King to warm up, not Cordero. By the time they figured it out, Cordero could throw only seven or eight pitches before the inning ended and his time was upon him.

He immediately didn’t look right, almost appearing to baby his pitches to the plate. His fastball didn’t reach 80 mph until late in the inning, and it topped out at 82 mph on his final two tosses.

“I was doing everything I could to try and get it loose, and it just wasn’t loose,” he said.

Amazingly, Cordero struck out Angel Pagan and got Brian Schneider to fly out before allowing an infield single to Luis Castillo. Marlon Anderson flied out to end the inning. Cordero threw 17 of his 20 pitches for strikes.

“If that isn’t proof that it’s all about location in this game, then I don’t know what is,” catcher Johnny Estrada said.

The preceding 7½ innings bore a striking resemblance to most of Washington’s games from the last two weeks. Despite a new-look lineup that featured Ronnie Belliard in the No. 2 spot and Lastings Milledge in the 5-hole, the Nationals managed to manufacture only a first-inning run and then get a solo homer from slumping Austin Kearns in the fourth.

That wasn’t enough run support for Chico (0-3), who followed up his eight innings of one-run ball Friday night with five labored innings last night that included three home runs: solo shots by Ryan Church and Jose Reyes and a three-run bomb by Carlos Beltran.

“I just didn’t execute my pitches, plain and simple,” Chico said.

The greater concern at the end of the night, though, was the status of Cordero’s arm.

“There’s no question that you can be hurt and not feel it,” Bowden said. “We’ve had an MRI, and the MRI didn’t show any injury. So that’s all we know, not that MRIs are always right either. I have seen this happen before, and then the guy gets loose and does well after that. So it’s very possible. We’ll see how he looks the next time out and keep watching. But sure, we’re all concerned about it. You have to be.”

CHAT EXCERPT

Each Wednesday Mark Zuckerman answers fans’ questions on washingtontimes.com. To submit a question,

e-mail natsmailbag@washingtontimes.com and read his responses at video1.washingtontimes.com/natsmailbag.

From Carl in Needham, Mass.: How much patience did you think Jim Bowden has? It’s embarrassing to watch the Nats continue to lose!

Mark Zuckerman: The organization, including Bowden, continues to preach patience, but we all know he can only go so far before he feels the need to make changes (see: Bergmann, Jason). I’d give this at least another week or so before I’d expect any major bombshells. And even then, I’m not so sure there’s a whole lot Bowden could do at this point. There’s no offensive stud waiting to be called up to the big leagues (and no, Chris Marrero is not ready yet. He’s still at Class A Potomac, so don’t even think about it).

From Sec. 314: Now that Nick Johnson has returned with gusto, has any thought been given to batting him third instead of (Ryan) Zimmerman? Johnson is definitely going to get the ball in play a lot more often than (Zimmerman).

Mark Zuckerman: You know, it’s funny — I had this exact same thought last night and brought it up to a couple of people. I think there could be some merit in the thinking. (Cristian) Guzman and (Lastings) Milledge have been doing their job at the top of the order, and Johnson has been by far their most patient hitter. Bat him third and he might have a better chance of driving in those guys in front of him or at the very least drawing a walk and then setting the stage for Zimmerman. The downside is that they’d have a bunch of right-handed hitters in a row (Zimmerman, Austin Kearns, Wily Mo Pena, Paul Lo Duca and Ronnie Belliard), which could be a problem late in games when opposing managers go to their bullpens.

OVERHEARD

“I think everybody goes through some spots where they’re guilty of trying to hit a six-run homer or something like that. That stuff happens. It’s easy to fall into.”

— Austin Kearns on the pressure of trying to break out of a slump

TONIGHT’S GAME

Nationals LHP John Lannan Record, ERA: 0-2, 6.75

Mets RHP Nelson Figueroa Record, ERA: 1-0, 4.50

Time: 7:10 p.m. TV: MASN

Mark Zuckerman

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