The Streak remembered: Chad Cordero
So after what we witnessed last night, this exercise in looking back seems more and more absurd, because it's clear, now, we should be looking forward. Alas, I've committed to doing this -- and I'm thankful to the few of you who I ran into last night and said they really liked the reflections -- so we'll continue to march forward. June 9, 2010, will always be the first day after Strasburg. June 9, 2005 was when the Nats really started to generate some attention nationally, because they were in first place, and it was starting to seem like they never lost.
Game 7, June 9
Nationals 4, Athletics 3
W - Hernandez (9-2)
L - Blanton (1-6)
S - Cordero (17)
This one ranks up there for absurdity. Regular second baseman Jose Vidro missed his 32nd straight game with a bad ankle, and fill-in Jamey Carroll -- who had played well in Vidro's place -- also had to sit with his own sprained ankle. That left the portly, aging Carlos Baerga at second, and that nearly halted the streak.
With the Nats up 4-2 in the ninth, closer Chad Cordero allowed two hits. But with two outs, he induced a grounder to third baseman Vinny Castilla. Castilla flipped the ball to second -- a bit high, but catchable -- and Baerga dropped it. One run scored, and the A's had men on second and third. How did Cordero respond?
"He was like nobody was on and we're leading by 20 runs out there," Castilla said. "He's just so cold-blooded."
With that, Cordero got Bobby Crosby to ground out to short, and the Nats had their seventh straight win. Nick Johnson provided most of the offense with a three-run double (he was hitting .341), and Livan Hernandez threw 127 pitches over his eight innings, allowing two runs to lower his ERA to 3.35.
At end of the day: 34-26, first place in NL East by 1-1/2 games over Philadelphia
In a way, Chad Cordero embodied the madness of what happened in the first few months of 2005. We've discussed it all, ad nauseum, before -- how he didn't throw that hard, how he used almost exclusively fastballs, how he never changed his expression under that flat-brimmed cap, and how he always seemed to put runners on, only to strand them there.
Cordero, now 28, was the first person I talked to when I started strolling down Memory Lane. A text message back revealed he was in Memphis, part of the brutal Pacific Coast League travel schedule for his Tacoma Rainiers. And there was this: "Velocity back up to 87-89." It made me think about that night in April 2008, at Shea Stadium in New York, when Cordero's first fastball clocked in at 76 mph. It took him 15 pitches to top 80 mph. He blamed it, that night, on insufficient time to warm up properly. But the problems were more significant. His velocity had been down all spring, and he was headed for season-ending shoulder surgery.
That, of course, led to his departure from the Nationals. He signed on with Seattle last season, knowing he would have to spend the whole year in the minors. He re-signed with the Mariners this offseason, hoping he'd be able to work his way back to the majors. But he didn't know.
"It's been tough," Cordero said when we talked a few days later. "Last year was kind of a wash for me, with rehab and all that kind of stuff. I think it really helped not trying to rush it back too quick. If I did that, I wouldn't be pitching this year.
"But it feels awesome now. The velocity's back up to 87-89. I've hit 90 a couple of times. My control is probably the best it's ever been. Overall, my arm's feeling great."
That, though, wasn't the case in 2009, when Cordero seemed so far away from the 2005 All-Star Game, from leading the majors with 47 saves. I asked him whether there were times when he wondered whether he would pitch again. The answer was easy.
"Definitely," he said. "A lot of the time last year when I was rehabbing, I was wondering whether I'd be able to pitch again. I even went back down a little bit, velocity-wise. I was throwing 85, then went back down to like 80. There were definitely times when I was wondering if it would come back.
"Then, all of a sudden this offseason, it just came back one day. It was the weirdest thing ever. I was still throwing like 82, 83, and I went out one day, and it seemed like everything was back. I was close to 90."
When we spoke, Cordero's numbers had been scarred by one bad outing -- typical for the early-season with a reliever -- but he felt confident with the way he was throwing. He was pitching not in a strict closer's role, but on a regular schedule, almost every other day. In 10 straight outings from April 30 to May 31, he allowed no runs in eight of them and just three earned runs overall, in 11-1/3 innings. Asked then if he thought he would return to the majors, the answer was also easy.
"Definitely," he said. "I kind of feel like I never got hurt. It just feels so good to be back on the mound again and throwing -- and throwing pretty well. I just had that one bad game, and that's kind of been it. I feel like, right now, about as good as I've felt since that season, 2005."
Cordero knows he will likely never have another season like he did in 2005 -- when he saved those 47 games in 54 opportunities and posted a 1.82 ERA. "I didn't take anything for granted," he said. But now, at least, he knows he'll have a season. On June 3, five years and one day after the victory that started the Nationals' 10-game winning streak, the Mariners called Cordero up to the majors. A night later, he pitched the seventh inning against the Los Angeles Angels, allowing a run on two hits, his first major league appearance since April 29, 2008, his only major league appearance not in the uniform of the Expos or Nationals. A night after that, he pitched a 1-2-3 ninth, in a mop-up role in a big loss, mixing in a strikeout.
The fans in Seattle may never know him as "The Chief," and he may never become a closer again. But Cordero's journey shows how long, in baseball, five years can be.
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