Friday, April 20, 2007

Friday Night Lights: What I said last week about keeping Chad Cordero? Forget it. If the Nats can still get something for him, they should deal him. What is it with this guy? Maybe the Nationals need to scrutinize his warm-ups. Is it possible that he just isn't getting loosened up enough before he comes in? He's the closer, so it isn't like he has to come in on short notice. Maybe he needs to throw more warm-up pitches, or throw harder in the bullpen... (Scroll down to the end of this post for the A-Rod update, or read on for my report on the Nationals' game).

Though they eventually won in 14 innings, the Nationals blew a 5-0 lead tonight. Shawn Hill had shut down the Marlins through five innings. In the sixth, the Nats nearly broke it wide open. The Nats had the bases loaded and nobody out, but their rally came apart due to the quirks of Dolphin Stadium. A passed ball to the backstop had Hill break for home. Unfortunately, the backstop is very close to home plate and very springy. The ball came right back to the catcher and Hill was caught in a rundown. He actually managed to make it back to third, but a hard slide took him past the bag, where he was tagged out.

As it turned out, Hill strained his shoulder on that slide. He came out to pitch in the sixth, but gave up a two-run home run. With two runs in the sixth and two more in the eighth inning, the Marlins were clawing their way back into the game. Still, it looked like the Nats might manage to hold on to their lead, when Ryan Church threw out Aaron Boone, who was trying to go from first to third on a hit to center. The bang-bang play at third base preserved a 5-4 lead in the eight inning. In the ninth inning, Chad happened.

For his second straight appearance, Chad Cordero blew the save. This time, he did it in short order, as he surrendered a home-run to lead-off the ninth inning. Cordero gives up a lot of home runs, especially for a putative closer. I'm serious about the observation regarding his warm-ups. He rarely gives up a lot of runs, but he often gets into early trouble, either putting runners on base, who come around to score, or giving up the long ball. In the future, he should try throwing more warm-up pitches in the bullpen.

Cordero wasn't the only closer to to run into trouble tonight. Yesterday, the Phillies nearly blew a four run lead in the ninth, against the Nats. Tonight, Tom Gordon failed to hold the Phillies 1-0 lead in the ninth inning. In Milwaukee, the Astros got four runs in the ninth inning against the Brewers' bullpen, but the Astros' deeply troubled closer, Brad Lidge, gave back three of those runs in the bottom of the ninth, before Chad Qualls came in to nail down the game. Most notably, in the biggest game of the night, the Red Sox rallied against the incomparable Mariano Rivera, scoring five runs in the 8th inning. This was the first time in two years that Rivera blew two saves in a row.

While Cordero had good company in failure tonight, I think the Nats should try to to find a way to get Cordero ready to get some outs from the start of the inning, rather than after he's already got the team in trouble. If he cannot become more consistent, the Nats really should think about dealing him. Right now, I'd be much more comfortable with Ryan Wagner in the closer role.

It was important for the Nationals to get off to a good start on this road trip. They are starting a truly nightmarish stretch. They will play fifteen of the next eighteen games on the road. The only three home games in that stretch will be the series next weekend at RFK, against the New York Mets. The Mets beat up the Nationals last year, especially at RFK. If the Nats can win enough games during this stretch to preserve their dignity, they might defy expectations and avoid losing over 100 games.

The Nats deserved to lose this game. It should have been lost in the 13th inning. With two outs and runners on first and second base, manager Manny Acta really went against "the book," and ordered Jesus Colome to intentionally walk Hanley Ramirez. While Ramirez is one of the Marlins' best hitters, this moved the winning run, Boone, over to third base -- one wild pitch, or a walk away from scoring the winning run.

The Marlins were denied that game-winning walk when Colome got a called strike on a 3-1 count slider to Matt Treanor, a pitch that looked to be about six inches off the plate. Though Brian Schneider set his glove towards the outside corner, Colome didn't quite hit the target. Schneider had to move the glove a few inches, and pulled it back, getting the called strike. Colome then got the hitter with a fastball down the middle that left Treanor flailing at air.

Ryan Church led off the 14th inning with a single. Church then stole second, but he was still standing on second two outs later, when Chris Snelling hit a one-hop smash at the first baseman that ate up Mike Jacobs and went off his hand toward right field. Church was waved around by the third base coach, as the Marlins' second baseman retrieved the ball. The throw home beat the sliding Church, but the catcher, Miguel Olivo, wasn't able to hold on to the throw, which short-hopped him. Church was in safely with the go-ahead run.

It was up to Saul Rivera to nail down the save that Cordero had squandered five innings earlier. Rivera had better luck than that other Rivera had for the Yankees, earlier in the evening. Rivera got the first hitter to ground out to the second baseman, Rafael Belliard. The next batter, Mike Jacobs, doubled to left-center. Jacobs went to third when Schneider couldn't hold on to a pitch that was way outside. Rivera rebounded, striking out Borchard, and getting the final out on a grounder to shortstop.

So, the Nats' marathon road swing started with a 14 inning marathon game. The Nats can be relieved and delighted that they won. Hopefully, the injury to Hill will not be serious (not least because I added him to my rotisserie team earlier tonight).

Alex Rodriguez update: It looked like A-Rod had single-handedly beaten the Red Sox tonight. He has struggled at Fenway in the past, but not tonight. He homered twice (HRs #11 and #12) and had a double in his third at-bat. As mentioned above, the Yankees' Mariano Rivera blew a 4-run lead in the eighth inning. Trailing by one run in the ninth inning, Rodriguez failed to deliver, seemingly for the first time this year.

Everyone is wondering if the Red Sox will continue to pitch to A-Rod, or give him the "Barry Bonds" treatment. I'm guessing the Red Sox will continue to throw to him, if only in hopes that they can throw him off his stride, and get to him psychologically in the way that A-Rod seemed to struggle with his confidence last season.

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