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When trouble reigns, Nats hail to the Chief

WashPost: Closer Cordero gets by on guts, calm and control
Closer Chad Cordero has played a huge role in the success of the Nationals this season.%tempByline.SentenceCase / AP

Frank Robinson patted Chad Cordero on the chest yesterday afternoon and said, "Walk this guy and get the next guy out, right?"

"Yup," Cordero said.

Robinson was delighted. Progress at last! Oh, sure, the bases were loaded with two outs in the ninth and the Nationals had a two-run lead over the Pirates. But what is that compared to getting your star 23-year-old reliever to speak while on the mound?

"A year ago he wouldn't have said anything," Robinson said. "His vocabulary has improved. Now, he might say, 'Yes' or 'No' or 'Okay' or "Fine.' " I have to teach him a few more words, like, 'I'm okay.' "

Maybe next year, Frank.

Just two years and three days ago, Cordero signed his first pro contract with the Expos. He was just a kid from Southern California whose dad drove a Wonder Bread truck. Fresh out of Cal State Fullerton, he reported to Shea Stadium so Robinson could watch him work out. He was so scared he bounced every pitch.

"What have we done with our number one pick?" thought Robinson.

Now, it looks as if the Nationals got themselves the hottest relief pitcher, perhaps even the hottest player, in baseball.

After that intentional walk yesterday, Cordero felt right in his element. If the bases aren't loaded and disaster awaiting him on the next pitch, the right-hander, called "Chief" for his one-eighth Native American heritage, can't seem to do his best work.

"Basically, I've gotten used to it. I've done it so many times," Cordero said softly of his thrilling ninth-inning escapes. "I don't know, really. I have no idea how I do it. . . . This is pretty cool. I just want to keep it up."

Cordero kept it up yesterday at RFK Stadium before 37,361 roaring but incredulous fans. Each day the throngs here try to grasp what they are seeing from Cordero and the Nationals team that he's come to symbolize. Yet they can't keep pace with reality. Because, for both Cordero and his team, the astonishing and unexpected deeds -- and the high-wire, odds-shredding manner in which they are accomplished -- pile up so fast that there's barely time to digest them.

With his sawed-off stature, his short-arm catcher's throwing motion and his trademark flat-brimmed cap pulled low over his eyes, Cordero needed only two pitches to get Ryan Doumit to fly out to right field to end the Nats' 7-5 victory over Pittsburgh. Thus, Cordero, who had saved the previous night's rain-delayed game at 12:12 a.m., saved another less than 16 hours later.

"He's just one cool customer," said Robinson. "Being the closer is the hardest job in baseball."

With that final pitch, Cordero completed a perfect and amazing month of June in which he had an ERA of 0.00, walked only one batter unintentionally and tied the major league record for saves in one month with 15. Only Lee Smith, the all-time saves leader, and former Yankee John Wetteland ever saved 15 in a month.

"You can't compare me to them," Cordero said. "They are a lot better than I am."

His manager may beg to differ. "He's like an avalanche right now. He's picking up speed," said Robinson, who has seen him save seven games in 11 days, including the past three in a row against the Bucs. "I don't know when to stop pushing the button."

Cordero, with a 0.87 ERA, has converted 25 saves in a row and has 28 in all, a pace for 58 that would break the major league record of 57 by Bobby Thigpen in 1990. Far-fetched, but it gives perspective.

Right now, the only thing in baseball more unexpected than Cordero's sudden stardom may be his team's first-place play. What the Nats are now doing borders on baseball insanity. And Cordero is, in one sense, the core of it all because the team's strategy is to hand him the ball with a lead in a low-scoring game in the ninth inning.

In the past 32 days, the Nats have gone 23-6, transforming themselves from a losing team (24-25) into the talk of the sport. In that span, Cordero has saved 18 games, including 11 by one run: 3-2, 3-2, 3-2, 2-1, 4-3, 2-1, 3-2, 1-0, 5-4, 2-1, 3-2. In that time, the Nats lost just one one-run game. And that was the only night of the season when Cordero was too overused to pitch.

Can this be the same team that was so down in late May that it went through Toronto, Cincinnati and St. Louis looking like it would never score another run or win another series? "It's amazing, all the trades, disabled lists and surgeries we've had," said starter Esteban Loaiza, who won on a day the Nats put Ryan Church on the DL and saw shortstop Cristian Guzman pull a hamstring that will sideline him for several days. "We say, 'This is what we've got.' And we go out and win with it."

Back in May the Nationals were invisible nationally. Now, in Las Vegas at the Bellagio, the Wizards are 30 to 1 to win the next NBA title. But the odds on the Nats to win the NL East -- perhaps the toughest division in the sport -- are down to 3 to 1.

Chew on that with breakfast. The smart money now takes the Nats seriously.

As the team's winning percentage has climbed above .600 just three games before the midpoint of the season (no, it still seems ridiculous), Washington fans are catching on. Crowds for this (5-1) homestand against weak draws averaged 35,755 -- or 1,936 a game higher than any previous stand this year and 4,827 a game more than the first two of the season.

Opposing teams get it, too. Toronto coach Ernie Whitt asked me last week, "If the Nationals aren't sold before the end of the season but they go to the World Series, do all 29 owners get a ring?"

Robinson was asked if his team's play this season reminds him of anything. After 50 years in the sport, he had to go outside his own game to find a comparison. "When Tiger [Woods] was on his run and he was in the trees or the traps, the announcers would say, 'There is no way he can do this or do that.' Then they'd say, 'Uh, oh . . . what an unbelievable shot!'

"As a matter of fact, we feel these close games play right into our strength. We hope we are in close games because we know we can win them. We don't get uptight or have it drain our energy," Robinson said. "People say, 'Can you keep doing it?' I don't know why not. All you have to do is score one more run than the other team."

Time after time, the Nats somehow do just that, then hand the ball to their Chief. After his perfect June, hail to him, indeed.