Monday, May 7, 2007

CHICAGO — Inside a morose clubhouse late yesterday afternoon, Brian Schneider tried to encapsulate the way he and the Washington Nationals felt about a 4-3, 10-inning loss to the Chicago Cubs that was perhaps as painful as any previous one this season.

“I mean, a loss is a loss,” the veteran catcher said. “But you always want to get beat the right way.”

Had the Nationals been beaten by a game-winning homer or an RBI double roped down the line, the club’s fifth straight loss might have been easier to swallow. But when it could be directly attributed to the six consecutive balls closer Chad Cordero threw to open the ninth inning, well, that was less palatable.

It still took a run-scoring single from Ryan Theriot to tie the game in the ninth and Daryle Ward’s single off Ryan Wagner to win it in the 10th, but neither of those would have been possible had Cordero exhibited more control when he first took the mound with his team clinging to a 3-2 lead.

The Nationals (9-22) put themselves on the precipice of victory thanks to Shawn Hill’s six solid innings, Dmitri Young’s pinch-hit, two-run single in the seventh and Jon Rauch’s two perfect innings of setup work. But as close followers of the club have known all season, Cordero has been anything but a sure thing.

The right-hander immediately got himself into trouble. He threw four straight balls to pinch-hitter Cliff Floyd to open the ninth, then threw two more balls to open Ward’s subsequent at-bat before the ex-Nationals player singled to left.

Cordero managed to get slugger Alfonso Soriano to hit a shallow fly ball to right, but he couldn’t get the less-accomplished Theriot, who blooped a base hit into shallow right, bringing the tying run home and bringing a roar from the crowd of 40,481 at Wrigley Field.

It took some deft work from Cordero to escape the ninth without surrendering the winning run, but the damage had been done, and the Washington closer had blown his fourth save in eight tries.

“For some reason right now, it’s just not happening,” said the right-hander, who had blown only 15 of his 106 career save chances entering the season. “I’ve just got to stay focused, and I still am. I’m still confident. I still know I can do it.”

The Nationals will continue to hand the ball to Cordero when the situation calls for it. Though manager Manny Acta acknowledged his concern over the reliever, who has put 32 men on base in 201/3 innings this season, he will stand by the 25-year-old.

“We don’t have other options, and even if we had them, this is a guy who has been a premier closer in this league for the last few years,” Acta said. “We’ve just got to get him right.”

Despite Cordero’s implosion yesterday, Washington still had a chance to win the game and avoid a series sweep at the hands of the Cubs. But in the 10th, Kory Casto struck out with the go-ahead run on second, and in the bottom of the inning Wagner ran into his own trouble.

Wagner (0-2) allowed a leadoff double to Matt Murton, then, after a spectacular play by Ryan Zimmerman on Michael Barrett’s smash to third, allowed a single to Henry Blanco. With the outfield playing in to try to throw out a runner at the plate, Ward then lofted a fly ball single over Casto’s head in left field for the game-winner.

Thus ended another heart-wrenching loss for the Nationals, who haven’t won since the first day of this nine-game road trip and now have the worst record in the major leagues.

The emotional toll could be starting to pile up. In addition to the struggles on the field, Washington has seen No. 1 starter John Patterson go on the disabled list with soreness in his right elbow and biceps and No. 2 starter Hill try to battle his way through injuries to both his left shoulder and right forearm. The mood inside the clubhouse this weekend was as dour as it has been all season as players spoke of trying to remain positive through these difficult times.

“We’re not on suicide watch,” Young said. “This is the game of baseball. If we can’t handle it, we’ll quit. But we’re not quitters.”

The Nationals knew they were going to lose their share of games this season. But they also knew they were going to have to close out games on those occasions when they did put themselves in position to win.

Thirty-one painful games in, that hasn’t been the case often enough.

“If you only score three runs a game, you’re going to have to play perfect baseball to win,” Acta said. “And we almost played perfect baseball, except at the end our closer failed today.”

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