- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2008

There is much for the Washington Nationals to be pleased about these days with the pitching staff holding together, the offense showing signs of breaking through and the star third baseman producing clutch hits for the first time in a long time.

All of which has resulted in the Nationals” best stretch of the season: four wins in five games counting last night’s 6-3 victory over the Atlanta Braves.

“Everything is kind of falling in place right now,” manager Manny Acta said.

Everything but the health of closer Chad Cordero, whose month-long travails took another downturn when he was forced to leave in the ninth inning with a strained muscle in the back of the right shoulder that has plagued him since Opening Night.

Cordero, who again came out firing fastballs in the 80 to 82 mph range, said he felt his arm give out on his 13th pitch and immediately signaled for a trainer. A quick medical exam suggested no problems with Cordero’s shoulder, but he will have an MRI today and said he expects to land on the disabled list for the second time this month.

“I’m hoping there’s nothing torn in there,” he said. “I’ll just take the next couple weeks off, I guess.”

Cordero’s arm troubles were the only negative development in last night’s win before a Nationals Park crowd of 25,285. Washington’s sluggish offense erupted as it were for six runs and 10 hits, including back-to-back homers by Ryan Zimmerman and Nick Johnson in the third inning and Zimmerman’s tie-breaking, two-run double in the seventh that proved the difference.

Zimmerman’s solo shot off Tom Glavine, which landed in the Red Porch restaurant area beyond the left-center field fence, snapped a 98-at-bat homerless streak that was the longest drought in the 23-year-old’s career. For a young player who has struggled through the season’s first month — he carried a .222 average into the game — Zimmerman’s first long ball since April 2 might well have been the relaxing break he so desperately needed.

“I think so,” Acta said. “It’s only natural, the way he’s been going. He’s working so hard in the cage every day. That home run gave him a little more breathing room.”

Johnson’s subsequent blast to right-center gave the entire Nationals squad some breathing room, namely a 2-1 lead that held up until starter Tim Redding left a fastball up to Chipper Jones in the sixth and watched as Atlanta’s superstar belted it for a solo homer of his own. Jones is now 7-for-9 with two homers in his career against Redding, who has all but conceded defeat in the head-to-head matchup.

“I think I’m going to send over a ball or a jersey and ask him to sign it ‘I own you,’ ” the right-handed cracked.

The game now tied 2-2, the onus was on the Nationals to recapture the lead, which they did with authority during their four-run seventh off the Braves’ bullpen.

Zimmerman came to bat with the bases loaded, hoping his earlier home run might push him to snap out of the 2-for-31 slump he found himself in with runners in scoring position. And that it did because on Blaine Boyer’s 2-2 pitch, Zimmerman laced a double to right, scoring Wily Mo Pena and Felipe Lopez.

Lastings Milledge added another two-run double off Jorge Campillo, giving Washington a 6-2 lead and affording Acta the opportunity to let Cordero get in some work in the ninth.

If only things were that simple. Cordero, whose velocity these days is being monitored like the stock market, again had little zip on his fastball.

“You could tell,” Acta said. “He started to warm up, and I said, ‘Man, I really don’t like what I see. But he’s been getting everybody out like that.’ ”

Not this time. After allowing two singles and a foul out, Cordero threw the fateful pitch to Kelly Johnson that had him reaching for his arm in pain. Jon Rauch came on to clean up the mess, allowing an RBI single to Johnson but then retiring Yunel Escobar and Jones to end the game and earn his fifth save.

“You hate to see that happen,” Rauch said. “With the bullpen being shuffled around like it’s been, we need him for all the stuff he’s done in the past to solidify our bullpen.”

Said Cordero: “It [stinks]. I want to be out there pitching. I hate not pitching and being on the DL and not being a closer. It’s tough, and it’s going to be even tougher for the next couple weeks.”

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