Many Nationals fans were dismayed by Sunday’s news that closer Sean Doolittle will remain on the disabled list for a few more weeks after a setback in his recovery from a left foot injury. Although Doolittle has excelled as a closer since coming in trade from Oakland last season, he still has a way to go to catch the most dominant closer Washington has ever seen, Chad Cordero.
The 36-year-old former Nat was one of the most popular former players at the autograph tables during All-Star FanFest and also enthralled attendees at the D.C. Baseball History annual meeting last winter. During his time with the Nationals, he was the team’s first star and a fan favorite, rewriting the franchise record book along the way.
In 2005, when baseball returned to Washington after a 33-season absence, “The Chief,” as Cordero was known, was not just the best pitcher on a team that spent 63 surprising days atop the National League East. He became the top closer in the major leagues, slamming the door on opponents 47 times. For that season and the next two, he was the man the Nats counted on to close games, with 113 career saves, 17 more than 1920s Nats hurler Firpo Marberry.
At 6 feet and 220 lbs., the right-hander was not physically imposing, and his fastball wasn’t the type that blew hitters away. Rather, his weapon was the “invisiball,” better known as pinpoint accuracy. He hit spots that caught batters looking and induced ground balls, popups and other weak contact. When he took the mound in the ninth inning wearing his trademark straight-brimmed cap, with Metallica’s “King Nothing” blasting from the speakers and chants of “Chieeeeeef!” filling RFK Stadium, the game was as good as won.
Baseball-starved Washington did not have high expectations that first season, but the 23-year-old Cordero gave them a star. On the way to winning the Rolaids Relief Man trophy and getting votes for both the Cy Young and MVP awards, Cordero put his name in the big league and franchise record books. In the magical month of June, when the Nats reeled off a franchise record 10-game winning streak, Cordero set the major league mark for saves with 15, surpassing greats Lee Smith and John Wetteland and helping the Nats build a 4 1/2-game lead in the NL East. On June 28 against Pittsburgh, he made franchise history, recording his 24th consecutive save to break the franchise record held by Mel Rojas.
The next month, he was the only National to play in the 2005 All-Star Game at Comerica Park, striking out the only batter he faced, future National Iván Rodríguez, in the National League’s 7-5 loss.
With a 1.82 ERA, .198 OBA and 0.97 WHIP, Cordero was the most effective of the Nats relievers, but he was also art of an excellent 2005 bullpen that was the team’s strength. Other standouts included Hector Carrasco (2.04/.200/1.10), setup man Luis Ayala (2.66/.286/1.25) Gary Majewski (.93/.248/1.36) and Joey Eischen (3.22/.252/1.36). But as the summer wore on, the starting pitching faltered and the team fell in the standings, manager Frank Robinson called on the bullpen more and more often. Only Cordero was up to the task, with 12 saves in 15 chances over the final two months, including eight saves and a 0.00 ERA in August.
As the Nats struggled in 2006 and 2007, Cordero saw fewer save opportunities. He finished with 29 and 37 saves respectively, and in one stretch and did not allow a run in 12 straight appearances during the ‘07 season. That year, he became the second-youngest player to reach 100 saves at 25 years, 86 days old, behind also only the 24-year-old Francisco Rodríguez. He capped it all by saving the final game at RFK Stadium, striking out future Nat Jayson Werth to seal a 5-3 win over Philadelphia.
However, a torn labrum sidelined him for almost all of the 2008 season, and although he pitched to a 2.08 ERA as the team christened Nationals Park, Cordero was not offered a contract for the next season. He was especially upset that then-general manager Jim Bowden made the announcement on a radio program.
Cordero was determined to make it back to the big leagues and made nine appearances for Seattle in 2010, but he would have a bigger struggle to overcome. In December of that year, his baby daughter Teyha, less than three months old, died of sudden infant death syndrome.
Still, Cordero fought to hold his life together by working to return to the majors. He tried with Toronto in 2011 and again with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2013, but could not make it out of the minor leagues.
Since then, Cordero has coached high school baseball and worked in the summer with the Bethesda Big Train, a team in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League.
Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. 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.