Tuesday, April 24, 2007

MIAMI — Chad Cordero, as anyone who has watched the Washington Nationals’ closer for the last two years knows, rarely shows emotion on the mound. The right-hander’s nondescript stare has become legendary, evidence of his ability not to be fazed by anything that takes place while he’s in the game.

But that doesn’t mean Cordero never displays his emotions. He has been known to give up a home run or blow a save and keep his composure until he returns to the dugout, at which point he often lets out his frustrations.

And how does he do it?

“I’d really rather not say,” he said with a laugh. “Words, mostly words. I mean, I have slammed down my hat a few times, but I’m not going to go destroy the Gatorade cooler or anything like that.”

These days, Cordero is cutting loose regularly in the dugout with words his mother probably would prefer not to hear. Such is the case when his ERA is approaching 6.00, he has blown two of his three save opportunities and he has served up three towering home runs.

Of all the Nationals struggling to perform during the season’s first three weeks, perhaps Cordero is the biggest surprise. Certainly, he’s the most disappointing because if this club had one sure-fire thing entering the season, it was an established closer.

If only Cordero was living up to the billing. In nine appearances spanning 91/3 innings, he already has given up six earned runs and 15 hits, issued seven walks, thrown three wild pitches and allowed three homers. He has retired the side only once so far, and he has put at least three men on base in five of his nine full innings.

Those aren’t comforting numbers to Manny Acta.

“Obviously I’m concerned because he’s my closer,” the rookie manager said after Cordero blew a save Friday night against the Florida Marlins. “But that being said, it’s only [three] weeks, and he’s my closer. By no means am I going to give up on him.”

The Nationals believe Cordero’s struggles can be boiled down to two easy-to-fix problems: 1) He’s falling behind in the count to opposing hitters, and 2) he’s relying too much on his offspeed pitches and not enough on his fastball.

The facts don’t seem to dispute those theories. Cordero, whose best strength has always been his pinpoint command, has had a devil of a time throwing strike one when Acta has called upon him this season.

Cordero has faced a total of 50 hitters to date. Twenty-seven times he has thrown a first-pitch ball, with 12 of those hitters ultimately reaching base.

“You can’t pitch like that here,” Acta said. “That’s not how he pitches. He relies on his location and getting ahead of hitters.”

Why is Cordero falling behind in the count? Because, the Nationals say, he’s throwing too many sliders and change-ups instead of the fastball that has become his best pitch since making the major leagues four years ago.

“He’s a fastball pitcher,” pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. “He’s got a good fastball. It’s sneaky and deceptive and gets on hitters. And he locates it well.”

Cordero, though, has been shying away from his best pitch lately because he’s worried opposing hitters are expecting it. The book is out on the 25-year-old closer: He tries to get ahead of batters by throwing first-pitch fastballs, and some teams (especially the Atlanta Braves) have taken advantage of that.

So Cordero made the decision to start throwing more sliders early in the count, hoping to catch hitters off guard. The problem: His command of his breaking balls isn’t as precise as that of his fastball, and when he does throw them for strikes, he has a tendency to leave them over the heart of the plate.

That’s what happened Friday night at Dolphin Stadium, when Cordero took a 5-4 lead into the ninth inning but immediately gave it up by hanging a slider to Marlins pinch-hitter Cody Ross and then watching as the ball sailed over the left-field fence for the game-tying homer.

“He’s not a breaking-ball pitcher,” St. Claire said. “He uses the breaking ball to keep them off the fastball. But he doesn’t throw three or four of them to one hitter. If you’re going to get beat, get beat by your good stuff, not by flipping sliders up there.”

Cordero knows it, so he’s trying to convince himself to go back to pitching the way he always has, trusting his fastball will get people out even when they know it’s coming.

“I’ve been able to get people out with my fastball for the last couple years,” he said. “I’ve just got to remember that.”

These are important times for Cordero and the Nationals. He is the club’s most-tradable commodity, and several teams showed interest over the winter in acquiring a reliever who already has 92 saves and a 2.73 ERA.

But might those clubs lose interest in Cordero if this sluggish start continues? Washington general manager Jim Bowden was looking for two top prospects in exchange for his closer during the offseason, and surely those demands aren’t going to be met now.

“I don’t think Cordero’s too frustrated by the way he’s pitched,” said one NL scout who has watched the Nationals closely all spring. “I think the Nationals are the ones who are going to be most upset because his trade value is going down.”

Cordero has been hearing his name associated with trade talks for months now, but he hasn’t let any of it get to him. At least not publicly. Just as he does on the mound, the Washington reliever doesn’t reveal his emotions when it comes to this subject.

“I’m not worried about other teams looking at me or anything like that,” he said. “No, I’m just going out there to pitch and help this team win.”

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