For fans who have followed the Nationals since they moved from Montreal, it's not hard to forget the last time they were in first place this late in the season - that wonderful summer when baseball returned to the nation's capital in 2005. A big part of that success will be at Nationals Park tonight to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the opening of this weekend's National League East showdown with Atlanta.
"The Chief," Chad Cordero, has been in town to conduct a celebrity baseball camp run by Bethesda Big Train summer collegiate baseball, a community baseball organization in Montgomery County named in honor of legendary Senators pitcher Walter Johnson. He's been teaching his craft to youngsters age 5 to 16 this week, and he'll cap it off by taking the mound at Nationals Park for the first time since 2008.
The Nationals chose not to offer Cordero a contract after he missed most of that season with a torn labrum, and he refused a minor league assignment. It was, at the time, a bitter end to the longest relationship of Cordero's record-setting major league career, one that saw him become the game's top closer and the leader of a spunky bunch of transplants that seemingly didn't know they weren't supposed to be title contenders until late in the season.
Known for wearing a flat-brimmed cap and warming up to the strains of Metallica, Cordero was not an imposing presence on the mound, and his fastball and slider were not necessarily among the game's best. But what he had was an "invisiball" - otherwise known as pinpoint control, a quirky delivery and the ability to fool batters with location.
He used them to near perfection in that dream summer of 2005 in Washington, compiling a franchise-record 47 saves with a 1.82 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 74 innings, and winning the NL Rolaids Relief Man award. In June, when the Nats surged to the top of the NL East with a 10-game winning streak, he tied the major league record for saves in a month with 15, matching John Wetteland and Lee Smith. Cordero and Livan Hernandez represented the Nats at the All-Star Game that year, and Cordero fanned the only batter he faced, future National Ivan Rodriguez, in front of Pudge's hometown fans in Detroit.
Manager Frank Robinson rode the team hard that year, as he tried to get everything he could out of the overachieving bunch. Some critics accused him of burning out the bullpen as the Nats faltered starting in late July and stumbled to an 81-81 last-place finish. But Cordero stayed strong, with 12 saves in 15 chances over the final two months, including eight saves and a 0.00 ERA in August.
Cordero's success tailed off in the next two seasons as the team struggled, but he saved 37 of the team's 79 wins in 2007, and in one stretch, did not allow a run in a 12 straight appearances. That year, he also became the second-youngest player to reach 100 saves at 25 years, 86 days old, behind only the 24-year-old Francisco Rodriguez.
After he left the Nationals, Cordero pitched briefly for the Seattle Mariners in 2010, and signed minor league deals with the New York Mets and Toronto Blue Jays, but never made it back to the majors. Although he announced his retirement last year, Cordero said on the Big Train website that he plans to try a comeback next year. But no matter what the future holds, for one season that will live forever in the hearts of Washington baseball fans, Cordero was the best in baseball.
Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.